the politician - beemsterbeleving in holland
Women leaving lucrative, rewarding careers and returning to the age-old practice of farming is a romantic story, but one that is increasingly becoming common. Women are finding deep satisfaction in the entrepreneurial and intellectual challenge of farming. Leaving behind the traditional definitions of success and re-defining them for themselves is less about romance and more about marrying their business skills with their ability to nurture.
Rona Uitentuis is a young woman who at only 31 is making a name for herself in the Netherlands as a dairy farmer, cheese maker and farm policy advocate. Combining her love for politics, entrepreneurship and farming, she earned her masters degree in political science and pursued a career off the farm advising for an organization that supports the efforts to conserve the land, typical Dutch landscape and agricultural business models in Holland. As a strong champion of family farms and her drive to create farm policy, she eventually ran for political office and won a seat as a City Counsillor. “This was satisfactory but I realized it was hard to influence spatial and agricultural issues at this government level” She eventually left her career in the public sector and returned to BeemsterBeleving, a dairy farm and creamery that has been in her family for three generations with goals to increase the farm productivity, diversify the income and ambitions to run for higher political office.
On my way to visit Rona, the flight path into Amsterdam took us over BeemsterPolder, the famous reclaimed land and agricultural seat of Holland. Quite visible from the plane, I could see well-ordered farmland. The area is outlined with trees and a continuous dyke that defines the borders of the former lake. It gave me my first peek into the legendary Dutch methodology that defines their planning, architecture and even transportation systems. BeemsterPolder was created in 1612 by private investors by the draining of Lake Beemster. The soil was discovered to be so rich that the investors turned it into farmland and was quickly described a financial success. The area described by UNESCO as an “innovative and intellectually imaginative landscape” sits 3.5 meters below sea level and is considered a masterpiece of modern planning. Many of the remaining structures have not undergone any significant change since they were built, and in 1999 the area was named a UNESCO World Heritage site thereby protecting the architectural style of the area. Rona described it as“extremely cool that this innovative design of 400 years ago is not just very beautiful but still a very suitable environment to make good money in agriculture.”
Once I arrived in Amsterdam I set out to visit this young, fourth-generation farmer and cheese maker. The trip was as orderly as the landscape. I took the 47 minute trip on the very timely #306 bus from Centraal station – the transportation hub perched on the harbor that houses the train, bus, metro, tram and ferry systems - to Middenbeemster. Upon arrival, I was picked up at the station by Rona and driven the to the farm that was just a few minutes from town. Along the way she pointed out the farms owned by her extended family and recalled her childhood memories harvesting plums with her grandfather, milking cows with her parents, and summers spent fishing from the dykes.
At BeemsterBeleving farm we arrived to find a group of disabled adults from Amsterdam who were enjoying their morning coffee. The Uitentuis family collaborated with the Netherland government to develop a daily work program for those with special needs. Run by Rona’s brother and mother; the program provides transportation, meals and meaningful employment on the farm. After their coffee, the group would head off with the farmers to work their assigned chores – today some will learn to muck the barn, some trim weeds and others will feed the animals. While Rona’s day-to-day responsibilities don’t allow her to spend much time with the program, it’s easy to see how important it is to her, “The chickens and rabbits for instance are here not purely for fun or the eggs: they give the ‘assistant farmers’ a useful days work”
As Rona gives me a tour of the farm she points out the architecture and the challenges that farmers are now facing as they update their barns to create more humane dwellings for the animals while maintaining the rigid and protected architectural standards. Rona finds herself at this intersection – protecting the heritage of her family farm and the generations that came before, while leading the charge for modern farm policy that will allow for humane animal farming and sustainable agricultural business models.
The architectural laws required that the farm buildings be built with the traditional roofline and with walls that ultimately creates dark confined spaces. While these buildings are beautiful, from the outside, there is increasing evidence shows that animals are more comfortable in barns with high rooflines, open bedding areas and even heavy curtains instead of walls. The increased light and air circulation is considered a more humane approach and often results in increased milk production. Championing a change in regional architecture regulations that allows family farms to build new barns with modern rooflines will be no easy task, but in Beemster it is already possible.
Rona has not only worked towards better farm policy for all, she has also increased productivity, profitability and diversified income for her own farm. Working at her father Jan’s side she has learned the farm business and the art of cheesemaking. She has learned to craft her father’s cheese, a type BeemsterBeleving is best known for, the Messeklever. Loosely translated to “sticky knife cheese” because of the way it clings to your knife, the cheese was created by accident when an Edam collapsed during the ageing process. The “failure” which happened around 1840 was attributed to the high fat content in the milk from the very happy and well-fed cows of the region that was initially considered non-suitable because they could not grow corn on it. It was actually quite a successful tasting cheese and it took Jan approximately two years to re-create the process in current, modern-day conditions. And now by developing relationships with some of Amsterdam’s finest restaurants, Rona has increased demand for her small batch cheese and the direct sales approach has increased profitability.
The farm is definitely a family and even community affair -- Rona has developed cheesemaking courses, a corporate retreat program, and her mother runs a bed & breakfast near the farm. The farm is a member of the dairy co-op: Friesland Campina. This co-op, one of the largest in the world, produces an enormous variety of dairy products for thousands of households in Holland and beyond.
As I watch Rona during her farm chores, I see how she interlaces old methodology with her modern ideas. She utilizes a 100-year-old wood hand crank press for removing the extra whey from the cheese, she dries her cheesecloths on a clothesline -- all while talking of modern barns that use canvas curtains instead of walls. Rona’s father still works in the cheese room every day alongside his daughter. He proudly shares how well the farm has done since Rona took the lead and how he loves to watch her bring fresh ideas and energy to the farm. When asked if Rona misses her previous career, she shakes her head, “It was the farm that I missed, I knew that I could really make a difference here, and I have.”
Since my visit with Rona in 2014 she had an unsuccessful bid in the province elections to become a representative of the agricultural sector and the Beemster region as a whole. In fact she lost by only 37 votes. She described her platform and campaign as one of the “normal farmers’ sense which she says is sometimes hard to find in politics.
Thank you to Rona and her family for hosting the Female Farmer Project at BeemsterBeleving.
Originally published in: October 06, 2015