Agricultural production in the period 1950-2015

31/01/2017 15:00
© Hollandse Hoogte
As reported by Statistics Netherlands (CBS), the production value of agriculture in the Netherlands increased more than tenfold over the period 1950-2015. Intensification and scaling-up accounted for the strong growth in both agricultural output and productivity. Nevertheless, the contribution of agriculture to Dutch GDP declined from 15 to 1.5 percent over the same period.
In the 1950s, ensuring the availability of food was a key priority for the Dutch government. Efforts to stimulate agricultural and horticultural production continued into the 1960s and ‘70s. Consequently, agricultural output and productivity soared. In 2015, farm productivity was at a five times higher level than in 1950. For example, the cucumber crop yield in 1950 was 53 million kg while the sugar beet crop yield stood at 2.7 billion kg; by 2015, yields had surged upwards to 405 million kg and 4.9 billion kg respectively.
Arable crop yields

Domestic yield of vegetables under glass

Raised productivity in agriculture and horticulture

Likewise, fruit and vegetable yields per square metre grew consistently over the period 1950- 2015. Moreover, the yield of greenhouse vegetables per square metre is much greater than that of vegetable crops in the open as it is much easier to control cultivation conditions in greenhouses. In 1950, cucumber cultivation yielded approximately 10 kg per sq m. This was more than eight times greater in 2016. Open-field fruit production increased to the same degree. In 1950, one hectare of apple trees yielded 6 tonnes of apples; in 2015, the output of one hectare was 44 tonnes. The same applied to pears: from nearly 8 tonnes per hectare of pear trees in 1950 to nearly 38 tonnes in 2015. For other field crops the increase was slightly more modest. Sugar beet production rose from 41 tonnes per hectare in 1950 to 84 tonnes per hectare in 2015. The higher crop yields are mainly the result of more intensive use of fertilisers and pesticides. Other key factors include plant breeding, more exchange of know-how by growers and the introduction of farm business innovations. In crop cultivation under glass, the use of natural gas from Slochteren for heating began in the mid-1960s, allowing the use of CO2 which was not polluted by waste gases to ‘fertilise’ the crops. In the mid-1970s, the growing of crops on substrate (instead of in soil) was started, making temperature control and administration of moisture and nutrients more convenient.
Livestock populations, development

Increased productivity in livestock farming

To mention a few examples of growth in livestock production: the number of pigs grew by 6.7 times from 1.9 million head in 1950 to 12.4 million head in 2016. In 1956, there were 33.0 million laying hens in the Netherlands, laying 224 million kg of eggs. In 2012, there were almost 42.8 million laying hens laying 672 million kg (10.3 billion) eggs.
Similar developments are seen in dairy farming: in 1950, the production of an average dairy cow was 4 thousand litres of milk per year. In 2015 this was 8.2 thousand litres, more than double. Dairy production has increased almost continually due to intensification at grassland farms, improved housing systems, new livestock feed technology and more efficient breeding. Already in the mid-1960s milk production reached such high levels that it created butter mountains and milk lakes. In 1950, the Dutch Dairy Association (Nederlands Zuivelbureau) started promoting the consumption of cow’s milk. In the late 1960s, the Dutch cartoon character Joris Driepinter was introduced to encourage Dutch young children to drink more milk.

Scaling-up and intensification

Throughout the upgrade of production and productivity, the underlying processes have been innovation, expansion of scale and mechanisation. The small extensive mixed farms of 1950 were gradually replaced by the large, intensive and specialised farms of today. The number of agricultural holdings declined from 410 thousand in 1950 to 55 thousand in 2016. The area covered by an average holding was around 5.7 hectares in 1950, versus 32.4 hectares in 2016.
Manure production and phosphate excretion

However, the coin has another side. Expansion was partly made possible by land reparcelling, the adaptation of infrastructures and water management. In the process, small-scale pluriform farming landscapes were replaced by large-scale uniform landscapes.
Furthermore, the intensification of land use by agriculture has led to increased levels of manure and of fertiliser and pesticide consumption. In several areas, regional specialisation has caused major, inherently agriculture-related problems. On the poorer, sandy soils in the provinces of Gelderland and Noord-Brabant, for example, the number of pig and poultry farms has risen sharply. Large numbers of animals were housed in increasingly dense environments and made ready for slaughter over a much shorter period of time. Eventually, this has led to increasing eutrophication of soil, air and ground and surface water.
In 2016 the total Dutch livestock population produced 78.1 billion kg of manure. Cows contributed over 82 percent, pigs 13 percent and poultry 2 percent. Dairy cows in particular accounted for a share of over 60 percent.