Crisis as catalyst
for success of agricultural sector

Reading time: 4 minutes


BY Inge Janse

November 2018

Livestock farmers in the Dutch province of North Brabant have come through a great many crises over the past 150 years. Cooperatives, the government and the church have all played their parts in this. What proved crucial to resilience was the bond between farmers and their community.

The breaking of the links between the farming sector and the city has undermined the resilience of farming systems (meaning their robustness or adaptation capacity), many researchers have concluded. Katrien Termeer, professor of Public Administration and Policy at WUR, researches the role played by institutions in this, looking at both formal relations (such as agricultural organizations) and information relations (between farmers and their community). She thinks we can learn a lot from a historical analysis, so she delved into the history of livestock farming in Brabant.

Berlicum 1909: Milking cows with the first electric milking machine.

PHOTO BHIC, ‘s-Hertogenbosch

Farm life in Brabant since 1880. VIDEO Helena Lighthert

1880 – 1914: new institutes initiate transformation

“Brabant, where crop farmers once scratched a poor living from the sandy soils, developed its livestock sector in the 19th century. It did not take long before the sector was confronted by a major crisis, when food products from the US flooded the European market. In retrospect, this crisis was the catalyst for the success story of Dutch livestock farming.

Agricultural organizations founded cooperatives for collective financing, purchasing and marketing, and were supported in this by the Catholic church. The government also invested in agriculture through research, education and extension services. If these steps had not been taken, the livestock sector in Brabant would probably have collapsed.”

Left: The Armhoef in Boxtel just after World War II. Farmhouses in this rare style were being built as far back as 1646. PHOTO Heemkunde Boxtel

Right: The Agricultural Credit Cooperative in Schaijk celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1948. The executive board, supervisory board and an advisor from the clergy pose for the photo. PHOTO BHIC

1914 – 1945: existing institutions adapt to make survival possible

“This was the period of the two World Wars, and the global depression of the 1930s. Demand went down, international borders were closed, and there were food shortages during the wars. And yet the livestock sector did not go under. In fact, it even modernized, thanks to the existing supportive institutions that adapted to the new reality. The government, for instance, drew up crisis legislation with quotas and minimum prices for the pork sector.”

‘During the crisis of the 1930s, demand dropped but livestock farming did not go under’

“In this period, too, links were formed between cities and agriculture because a lot of people from the cities went to farms to get food. These informal links gained the sector a lot of credit in society, which lasted into
the post-war years.”

Inspection of bulls by the Dutch Christian Farmers Union in Boxtel.

PHOTO E. van der Staak/ Heemkunde Boxtel

1945 – 1970: existing institutions promote change

“The agriculture sector was supported in this period by European policy, which was based on the ideal of ‘never again war, never again hunger’. But many farmers migrated out of Brabant, to earn easier money in the port of Rotterdam, for instance. This was the heyday of agricultural and extension organization, because they encouraged livestock farmers to go for intensification, specialization, mechanization and upscaling. This meant fewer farmers could produce more.”

“What helped here was the policy of exempting soya imports through Rotterdam port from import duties, giving farmers access to cheap livestock feed. And there was still a lot of sympathy for farmers, so nobody objected to the support they got from the government. Nor was there much criticism of the environmental impact of intensive livestock farming in those days.”

Farmers from the Oss region deliver pigs to the Zwanenberg factory in the 1950s.

PHOTO Stadsarchief Oss

1970 – 2000: a bastion of conservatism

“Butter mountains, manure surpluses, acid rain and swine fever: in this period the side effects of intensive livestock farming started coming in for more and more attention. And the historical sympathy for farmers in the cities diminished. A stench was no longer seen as a healthy country smell.”

‘Regional food networks in Brabant forge new links between farmers and consumers’

“The bastion of cooperatives, agricultural organizations and the ministry of Agriculture was now actually limiting the resilience of the sector. They defended intensive production and the idea that more is always better. They also fended off or denied insights into environmental impact. The swine fever outbreak of 1997 formed a turning point. For weeks, Dutch television viewers saw footage of culls of pigs, carnival processions were cancelled and the taxpayer covered the costs. All this put the farmers’ ‘licence to produce’ under pressure.”

2000 – now: new and old institutions, seeds of transformation

“Intensive livestock farming came under even more pressure in this period, with Q fever as the lowest point. People living near goat farms fell ill and there were even deaths. This created a lot of mistrust in the old institutions, which the public felt had denied the risks for too long. As a result, new institutions were formed, with doctors getting organized, citizens’ initiatives, and the launching of the animal rights political party, the ‘Party for the Animals’.”


Prof. Katrien Termeer


Professor of Public Administration at Wageningen University & Research

Resilience research

Historical research on the significance of institutions for the resilience of the livestock sector


Katrien Termeer works on this research with a team of scientists from Wageningen University & Research and the University of Leuven in the fields of social economics and the social sciences.

A mega barn in Vredepeel, the biggest dairy farm in the Netherlands in 2008.

PHOTO Hollandse Hoogte

“At the same time, regional food networks in Brabant forged new contacts between farmers and consumers. And a project that started in Brabant, with free-range pigs roaming naturally, shows that you can earn your keep with fewer animals. But such new farming methods tend to clash seriously with the remnants of the old institutions, what with restrictive regulations, business models that don’t add up, and distrust.”

‘Cherish the many seeds of transformation and this will increase the resilience of the livestock sector’

“So don’t dismiss livestock farming practices, because they will withdraw and isolate themselves even more. Instead, cherish the many seeds of transformation and new links between farmers and their neighbours, city and country, and producers and consumers. That is the way to increase resilience.”

Insights for the future

Katrien Termeer hopes her historical research will enable her to discover crucial institutional mechanisms for resilience. She works with an agent-based model which reveals the impact of interventions on the sector. If you weaken the link between agriculture and the city, for example, you also influence the number of pigs. The model is based on historical data and can provide insights for the future – and maybe even make predictions about resilience in the face of developments such as climate change.

Termeer would like to upscale her model. She is interested in whether European agricultural policy strengthens or weakens resilience. And whether the model can tell us anything about the resilience of other sectors, such as the port of Rotterdam. One thing is clear to Termeer, and that is that institutions are inflexible. “You don’t change resilience in a day. So do be aware of your limitations.”

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