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Hard work and too many statistics: An EU farmer's frustration grows with every click of the mouse

Farmers have always lived by the whim of nature, but fickle regulation they find more difficult to accept

Raf Casert
Thursday 15 February 2024 05:19 GMT

On a farm in northern Belgium, not far from the hundreds of tractors blocking Europe's second-biggest port to demand more respect for farmers, Bart Dochy was switching on his computer, waiting for a government program to load with maps of his land next to empty digital boxes demanding to be filled with statistics on fertilizer, pesticides, production and harvesting.

“They also supervise us with satellite images and even with drones,” Dochy said. His frustration highlights the yawning gap in trust and understanding that has opened up between European farmers and what they increasingly see as a nanny state looking into every nook and cranny of their barns, analyzing how every drop of liquid manure is spread.

From Greece to Ireland, from the Baltics to Spain, tens of thousands of farmers and their supporters joined protests across Europe in recent weeks. It was enough to put the farmers’ plight on front pages all over the continent, setting it up as a key theme for the June 6-9 parliamentary elections in the 27-nation European Union.

Farmers have always lived by the whim of nature. Fickle regulation, though, they cannot accept. “That is what is creating this level of distrust. It's like living in Russia or China,” he said, instead of the fertile flatlands of Flanders in northwestern Belgium.

Farmers have many complaints — from insufficiently regulated cheap imports to overbearing environmental rules — but the reams of red tape set everyone off almost instantly. The EU however, is also the hand that feeds them, with some $50 billion (euros) going into a vast network of programs that touch on agriculture in various ways every year.

In return, farmers must account for their spending — in ways they find increasingly onerous.

At 51, Dochy is far from an embittered, extremist farmer setting bales of hay on fire or spraying manure into government buildings. In his office, as essential as a barn in the life of a current-day EU farmer, hangs the warning “God Watches — No Cursing Here.” He comes from old-time farming stock, generations of conservative Christian Democrats that have traditionally provided the backbone of European agriculture.

Once Dochy finishes dealing with 900 pigs and some 30 hectares (74 acres) of corn or potatoes, he exchanges his blue overalls and rubber boots for a three-piece suit. He's also the mayor of this farming community, Ledegem, 120 kilometers (70 miles) west of Brussels where much of the detested EU farm bureaucracy comes from.

Over morning coffee, his father, Frans Dochy, 82, remembers how, in his youth, he would harvest beets out of the cold, thick earth by hand for hours. Yet, he says, 2024 bookkeeping “would have driven me off the farm long ago.”

He sees how his son has to register the arrival of any artificial manure within seven days. “And it has to be done even at the busiest times on the field, of course," said Bart Dochy. “Then it has to be registered exactly how it is spread on every single little plot of land — how many kilos and how it is distributed," he explained, going through some of the thick folders in his office.

“And with the smallest error, there are fines.”

Dochy said he often heard from dozens of the farmers in his town how the fines can amount to hundreds of euros, simply with a wrong click of the mouse. The same stories come up at every farmers' protest — be they Italian, French, Dutch or Spanish.

On Tuesday, farmers blocked roads around the Belgian port of Antwerp, the second-largest in Europe, most of the day. The disruption followed earlier protests at the port, 60 kilometers (40 miles) north of Ledegem, and around the country which cost tens of millions of euros in transport delays and spoilt goods.

What really gets Dochy is when bureaucratic deadlines are imposed on him, for example if certain crops or green fertilizers need to be sown by Sep. 1.

“If the last week of August is unbelievably rainy, you will not be able to sow this properly. But you are nevertheless obliged to sow. Otherwise, you may be faced with a fine,” he said.

“A farmer actually lives in conflict between the government, which wants to be in charge, and nature, which is still in charge. And you can’t actually change anything about nature,” Dochy said.

Because the rules also change so fast, Dochy said, it becomes harder and harder to invest wisely. In northern Belgium such issues have coalesced around nitrate pollution from farming and rules to contain it.

Years of political bickering and court challenges have left no clear view of what the future could hold.

EU officials, though, point to the need for strict regulation after decades of lax enforcement. Soil pollution was once widespread from the dumping of excess manure in gutters and rivers. Such was the stench hanging over parts of Dochy's province that, several decades ago, it was popularly renamed Mest (Manure) Flanders instead of West Flanders.

Farms had to be thoroughly checked to make sure they were spending subsidies correctly.

Now, though, the pendulum has swung the other way. After years of piling on ever more intricate rules, politicians realize they might have gone too far.

“Our farmers continue to face huge challenges,” EU Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic told EU parliamentarians this week, making sure to mention “administrative requirements.”

“We hear our farmers – loud and clear. We acknowledge your hardship. And politicians need to do better!” Sefcovic said.

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