Three days before the end of the public inquiry into Flemish nitrogen regulation, feelings are running high in Turnhouts Vennen, the nitrogen-hit region the most. “Believe me, this hasn’t been about nature for a long time.”
Tuesday am 10 am. The cows of Nikki Van Outen and Thomas Verkamen happily chew on the grass. The sun and bright green grass make the green border around Turnhout seem more idyllic than usual. But appearances are deceiving. Van Outen and Verkamene have not slept a wink since February 22, the day the Flemish government reached the major nitrogen agreement.
“We have 300 dairy cows,” says Van Outen. “We produce milk for President cheeses. This means that we have to meet very high quality standards.” Van Otten’s parents and relatives take part in the business. Her three children also taste it. But according to the couple, the fifth generation in a row, there is no longer a future in agriculture.
Strict nitrogen rules
Their land is partly located in Turnhouts Vennengebied, an area where the Flemish government wants to impose very strict nitrogen regulations. This has to do with the unique nature of the area. Healthy plants thrive in De Liereman Nature Reserve in poor, sandy soil. However, the precipitation of nitrogen makes the soil fertile. As a result, poor crops are at risk of being replaced by other species, such as nettles and blackberries.
“The imposed fertilizer ban is actually making our land worthless,” Thomas says. “Today we have a circular system: we spread manure from our cows on the fields where we grow grass and corn. We feed the cows with it. But if we are no longer allowed to use manure, then nothing will grow. Then our income drops and we can no longer repay our loan from the bank with which we pay our investments “.
Nikki and Thomas were present Monday evening at the Merksplas Community Center. Environment Minister Saturn Demir (N-VA) came there with the General Union of Farmers to explain the new nitrogen regulation. However, when I entered, all went well and the angry farmers blocked the village square with their tractors. A doll was also hung with the caption “Demir on the gallows”† The minister who left the room accompanied by the police filed a complaint.
The incident is not an isolated case, as anger has been building for some time. For example, Dutch activists knocked on the door of the relevant minister, Christian van der Waal, last week. Van Outen also appeared at the private home of Prime Minister Jan Gambon (N-VA) in Prachat. “But that was innocent,” she says. “I just wanted to send an open letter. He angrily snatched the letter from my hand and walked away.”
The protest at Merksplas was co-organised by the Turnhouts Vennengebied Steering Committee, a working group of about 25 farmers from the area. “With this kit, we’ve already helped set up 675 interceptions against the nitrogen scheme,” says Van Outen. Today they hand it over to the mayor. According to her, the steering committee only called for peaceful talks with Demir.
We hear it a few kilometers away at Raffles from Gunter Klaasen and Daisy Ven. Two years ago they got a permit to build a new chicken coop that already exists. At the same time they renovated two old stables. In total they can now keep 134,000 chickens. Broiler chickens go to Colruyt and Delhaize, among others, in the form of cubes, fillets, sausages, and fide fillings.
“Do you realize how much debt we have?” Klassen asks in dismay as we sit at the kitchen table. “We still have 2 million euros to pay, but it will be impossible to make a profit. So we will work for 25 years for nothing.”
The story illustrates the problem faced by many farmers in the area. In recent years they have obtained permit after permit to build additional stables. They also took out huge loans for it. Now all of a sudden they are covering their nose.
Striking: Many farmers are firmly convinced that there is a larger conspiracy behind the strict approach of the Turnhout-Fienen district. “Believe me: It’s no longer about protecting nature,” says Nikki. “They just want to take our land.” It refers to Demer’s Chief of Staff, Gilles van den Berghe, whose father Jan has campaigned for the creation of a national park across Natuurpunt for many years. It does not work.
“His son is now in the right place to make this dream come true,” says Klassen. “The new nitrogen rules are making our land worthless. Nature organizations are already calling desperate farmers to buy their land at a much lower price.” A meaningless theory, according to the Demir government.
The chemical giant Ineos
Another theory that came back relates to the permit Demir gave last week to chemical giant Ineos in the port of Antwerp. N-VA will sacrifice Kempen to allow his party chief Bart De Wever to do his thing in Antwerp. However, the evidence is lacking.
Demir says she understands the anger of the affected farmers. But she says it is impossible to continue with the policy of previous years. “Nice surgeons make foul-smelling wounds. Cultivators deserve someone who is honest with them, no matter how hard it is.”
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