Dutch dairy farmer and Nuffield scholar Heleen Lansink left New Zealand recently with a heightened appreciation of the differences between the roles of women in agriculture in this country and the Netherlands.
Lansink lives and works with her husband Rogier and their four children on a dairy farm in eastern Holland, close to the German border. They run 85 milking cows on 55ha.
On her trip, which took her around the world, she investigated the evolving role of the farmer’s wife/partner in her key position as a driver in the transition to sustainable, supported agriculture.
Being willing to help her husband run the family farm makes Lansink unusual among her female peers.
The reasons for that are physical and cultural. Not only are farms smaller than in NZ, so there is less space for women to be involved, but most tend to work off-farm because there are so many large centres of population nearby.
A further barrier is the sexist behaviour prevalent in the industry. For her research she quizzed a gathering of 800 Dutch women who told her while many of them have equal ownership few ever attend a farm-related meeting.
“Women aren’t heard.
“About 80% said if advisers came to visit the farm, the mainly men would hardly ever speak with the women. These advisers might be bankers, feed or breeding reps, accountants, vets.”
While in NZ she stayed with dairy leader Tracy Brown who farms near Matamata.
Brown is chairwoman of the DairyNZ Dairy Environment Leaders Programme, the Ballance Farm Environment Awards Alumni, the farmer representative on the Dairy Environment Leadership Group and a DairyNZ director.
Lansink was keen to learn about the paths NZ women use to move into leadership positions, avenues that are sorely lacking in the Netherlands.
“When you train women they’ll grab their chances. Tracy started with the Dairy Women’s Network and there are number of regional leaders who are being trained,” Lansink said.
Brown, who intends to complete a Nuffield scholarship and travel overseas including to the Netherlands, said her understanding is the situation for women in both countries is different.
“In NZ it’s more of a 50:50 partnership. You’re an equal decision maker whereas in the Netherlands the farms are inter-generational and small and it simply isn’t economically viable for the female partner to be at home on the farm.
“Here there are a lot of women who have professional roles but they’re doing that from home, juggling family, running a family business and doing something else as well.
“Maybe it’s a downscaled role of something they used to do professionally. They tend to feed calves, look after the finances and do another job whereas the major focus for women in the Netherlands seems to be working off-farm with little involvement in the day to day,” Brown said.
Lansink noted the Netherlands and NZ face similar environmental issues.
“Our systems are collapsing a bit. You see the problems we’ve got with animal welfare, loss of biodiversity, pressure on air and water quality. Sometimes we step over the boundaries. We have to move to a new, balanced system – regenerative, circular farming are all solutions.”
However, farmers are sometimes not vocal enough about their environmental initiatives.
“For example, we have a frog pool on our farm but no-one knows because we haven’t said anything and then we’re accused of not doing enough for biodiversity.”
On milk alternatives Lansink does not see them as a threat because “it’s all about telling our stories about how nutritious milk is.
“We live in a free world. For some farmers it’s a new challenge.”
There are bigger issues such as the average age of farmers being about 56 and the fact the younger generation is less willing to make farming a career.
Whatever the challenges, Lansink loves farming in the Netherlands. After visiting the United States and China she decided that with all its extra regulation the Netherlands is a good place to be a farmer.