Stories in an empowering landscape
Journalist Robert Niessen reports for Favas.net on daily life, work and culture in and around the Beemster, a historic Dutch polder and UNESCO World Heritage Site north of the Amsterdam metropolis in the Netherlands. His reports situate people in their living environment or during their work and other activities. Living in the Beemster, Robert closely follows the residents at their homes. He writes about his subjects (e.g. food) from the perspective of those who use their Beemster creatively and responsibly for agriculture, gardening, or other forms of goods creation and cultural capital. This approach provides a view of a landscape that is both context and raw material for empowerment. Robert delivers a bottom-up perspective on his world, devoted to important themes such as energy transition and climate adaptation by and for people.
Portrait of a small, traditional farm and artisan cheese factory
The traditional way: the story of cheesemakers Jan and Ruth
Jan and Ruth Verdegaal became farmers thanks to great-grandfather Gerrit Verdegaal. The family has been associated with livestock farming for generations, but great-grandfather farmed so well that he left a farm to his three sons (the daughters each inherited a milk churn). Also the making of cheese had been in the family for a long time. Thus Jan (1958) and Ruth (1963) grew up milking Blaarkoppen (a breed of cows), churning butter and making cheese. In 1969, the family moved from Lisse to Oudendijk, a village on the edge of the Beemster. Of the six children, only Jan and Ruth felt at home on the farm. That they went to the agricultural college in Hoorn was therefore a matter of course. And when their father died in 1998, they just as naturally followed in his footsteps.
“There is always a metre of grass growing in a year”
Since then, the brothers have increased the number of cattle from thirty-five to sixty Blaar heads. They have added another barn and expanded the land from seventeen to thirty-five hectares. Machines have been replaced, the bookkeeping has become more complex and their mother, Toos, has gradually withdrawn from the household. Apart from that, it is as if time has stood still here. Just like in the old days, the animals and the seasons determine the rhythm in and around the farm. Year in and year out. “It’s always the same,” says Jan, “and yet always different” – also because of the wonderful change of seasons. But no matter how the seasons turn out, in the end it makes no difference, because – as Ruth soberly observes – “There is always a metre of grass growing in a year”.
The eternal repetition also has its advantages. Jan: “You can try again every year. If something is not going well now or you think it could be done better, then next year you get the chance to do it slightly differently.” Only the ringing of the shop bell breaks the rhythm of the farm. Customers come from far and wide to buy what is, according to the newspapers, ‘the best butter in the Netherlands’. Or naturally matured cheese, or buttermilk. Recently, they also started selling their ‘own’ meat, but they are not entirely happy with that yet. Nevertheless, cattle breeding in the Beemster started at the beginning of the 17th century: fattening cattle to sell meat to consumers all over Europe.
Expected Summer 2021: Robert Niessen’s second report!
The Beemster introduced
Droogmakerij the Beemster (Beemster Polder) was constructed in 1612 as one of the first initiatives in Holland in reclaiming agricultural land from a body of water. The new land has been obtained by pumping water out of the former Beemster Lake, using 43 windmills. The area covers 72 km² and lies on average 3.5 meters below sea level. The new land was used for farming and a lot of wealthy people from the city of Amsterdam built their second home here. These lavish houses and characteristic wind mills have long since almost all disappeared, but the rational geometric pattern of the roads, dykes, canals and land – developed in accordance with the principles of classical and Renaissance planning -, remained. ‘This mathematical land division was based’, as the Unesco describes, ‘on a system of squares forming a rectangle with the ideal dimensional ratio of 2:3. A series of oblong lots, measuring 180 metres by 900 metres, form the basic dimensions of the allotments. Because of this ingenious master plan, Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) designated the Beemster a World Heritage Site in 1999.
All images and texts by Robert Niessen.
Historic Beemster map (courtesey Waterlands Archief)
Today’s Beemster map (courtesey OpenStreetMap)
Webpage editors: Robert Niessen & Favas.net
Map: Beemster and vicinities today