4 August 1995

Intense methods put Holland behind in green farm stakes

A recent LEAF study tour found UK farmers are ahead of their European counterparts in environmentally-friendly farming. Robert Harris reports

UK farmers expecting a lesson on green farming during a Linking Environment and Farming tour of Holland were surprised to find the country lagging behind the UK.

Apart from cutting pesticide use farmers seemed unwilling to do more for fear of harming profits. "From what I had read, I thought they were way ahead. Instead, it seems the other way around," says Oxfordshire grower Adrian Taylor.

The intensity of Dutch agriculture surprised many. In central Holland high land prices and small farms mean maximum output to cover costs. Farms average 42ha (103 acres) but land is worth £20,000/ha, says Frank Wijnands of Nagele Research Station, Lelystad.

With 70% of agricultural produce exported, quality is paramount. Pesticide use remains high, 3-4 times the UK average of 2.5-3kg/ha of active ingredient. But that is 40% down on 1991, due to a consumer-prompted government plan to halve levels by 2000.

Nematicides on potatoes have been cut by 75% due to better varieties and soil testing. Blight fungicides have also been cut by using more resistant varieties and lower doses. And petiole analysis is widely used to tailor fertiliser use. Carrot fly monitoring means adults are sprayed as they fly into the crop, rather than applying large amounts of preventative soil-acting products.

Progress in other environmental areas appeared slow. Crops were green to the edge of fields. Given that most were surrounded by water, that surprised many. "I would think most of their problem is due to spray or fertiliser going straight into the water," says Kinross, Perth, farmer Tom Lawrie.

His fears were confirmed by Dr Wijnands. "Only 10% of farmers in Holland have headland adaptors on their spreaders." Buffer zones are now a "hot topic", he adds. But with set-aside almost unknown in the area and given the need for maximum profit, farmer resistance is high.

Aerial spraying for potato blight was in full swing. "Everyone in Holland has been sprayed at least once in their life," quipped Dr Wijnands. Few disbelieved it.

But the Dutch governments drive for an integrated policy that is sustainable, competitive and safe means attitudes must change, he says. "Farmers are now managers of green space in the name of the urban population."

Better, more active products may help reach targets. But without these farmers will have to adopt new technology, Dr Wijn-ands believes.