Science - October 27, 2009

New agricultural atlas of the Netherlands

The Agricultural Atlas of the Netherlands (Landbouwatlas) from 1959 will finally have a sequel. Rye and land re-allotment make way for the Black-tailed Godwit.

Pigs (varkens) and rye (rogge) in the Netherlands in 1959 and 2009
Fifty years have taken their toll. The Landbouwatlas of 1959 in the atlas cabinet in the Forum is falling apart. Rest assured that this half century old reference work will be relegated permanently to the ranks of the Special Collection, or, in other words, the 'old papers' of the library. From 4 November, an update will be available in the shops, with detailed coverage in word and image of the agricultural sector, from climate and land use to productivity and economic conditions.
Milk en Rye
Whoever compares the old with the new will stumble upon a world of difference. More than half of the 155,000 agricultural firms in 1959 have disappeared. While there was an explosion in milk production and 700 milk factories were charted by the cartographer fifty years ago, only 50 of these are left. Rye has In the meantime, just like flax, almost disappeared from the land.
In contrast, the number of pigs in the Netherlands has increased by more than fivefold. Just like the number of students in Wageningen - about 1000 in 1959 of which 10 percent were women - now a total of 5500 in a fifty-fifty sex ratio.
What has lasted through the years is the bond which Wageningen holds with the sector. Both atlases, although separated by half a century, radiate a sort of school principal-like engineering pride in a job well done. The people who together drew up the first agricultural atlas then were both Wageningers:  a director of the then Hogere Landbouwschool and the head of the department of numbers documentation of the ministry. The new version is a private initiative.
Together with two colleagues from Alterra, Willem Rienks set up a consultation firm last year to map the future of the agricultural sector and to supervise the processes of change in the countryside 'We were hindered because we could not find an overview which clearly shows the agricultural situation at a glance', says Rienks. 'So the idea of making an atlas ourselves slowly took hold. That has cost a lot of time and money, but it was also a fantastic experience; every new map which unfolded was a gift.'
Interested readers would agree. The new edition is a joy for those who love informative maps, although the artistic quality loses out to that of fifty years ago. In 1959, funds were obviously available to employ a cartographer to draw those beautiful graceful lines and fill the maps with beautiful matt colours. Such resources are absent in the new atlas. The maps are functional, often chocked full of details, and have rather glaring colours.
The information in the one hundred maps and smaller maps - four times more than fifty years ago - is really worth the effort, though. For the professional user, of course, but also nice for anybody: soil, climate, land parcel prices; discover at an glance which regions in the Netherlands cultivate factory-, seed- and consumption potatoes (more or less the same as fifty years ago). Or realize that Brittany is a formidable rival for Dutch animal farming.
Habitats Directive
Much has of course been changed in fifty years. The Green Heart was then one of the major pig rearing regions of this country. The maps of impoldering (the South Flevoland Polder and the Markerwaard Polder were already charted), land reclamation and re-allotment have meanwhile been replaced by field bird sanctuaries, the Habitat Directive and urbanization. Growth optimism made way for care of the Black-tailed Godwit. Despite these, anyone who sees the legendary growth of agricultural exports - a rise of fifty percent in the last eight years - has to admit that the farmers have all along been doing what they are best at: produce abundantly.