LEIDEN, The Netherlands — On a strip of land amongst the canals that crisscross the flat Dutch countryside stand 50 black-and-white Holstein cows, heads down, chewing on a lunch of hay served to them by their owner, farmer Wilbert van der Post.

"I'm the fourth generation on this farm," says van der Post as he spreads the hay along the floor of the barn. "My great-grandfather came here around 1900."

Van der Post now fears he might be his family's last generation of farmers. The manure and urine his cows produce is rich in nitrogen compounds that contribute to smog, harming the lungs of his country's 17.5 million residents. Van der Post's cows are among tens of millions of animals nationwide that are contributing to what environmentalists call a nitrogen crisis.

The Netherlands, only the size of Maryland, is the world's second-largest exporter of food. It's one of the most intensely farmed countries in the world, and its soil has high levels of environmentally damaging nitrogen compounds from both animal manure and fertilizers.

A series of court rulings has forced the Dutch government to come up with ways to reduce nitrogen pollution, among them cutting animal herds by half by the end of this decade.

"If every farmer has to reduce 50% of their herd, it will be a problem for me," says van der Post. "It's not possible to earn money from that."

Van der Post says he's already turned to other ways to make money. He's organizing school excursions to his farm, and corporate retreats.

"We do cow cuddling," he explains. "That's when people come here and pay us to lie against a cow."

But at around $50 per cow-cuddling session, he says it's still not enough for him to make a steady income under the new nitrogen reduction rules.

An environmental reckoning forces a change in Dutch farming

Those rules, say environmentalists, are being implemented for a reason.

"We have an enormous amount of manure and an enormous amount of emissions that you hardly find somewhere else in the world," says Natasja Oerlemans, head of food and agriculture for the World Wildlife Fund of the Netherlands.

"Basically, a former minister put it as follows: we import all this feed, we produce meat and dairy, and we export 70 to 80% of meat and dairy," she says. "And the s*** remains here, literally."

Oerlemans says Dutch farmers import most of their animals and nitrogen-rich feed. The small nation produces meat, dairy and eggs from 4 million cows, 13 million pigs and 104 million chickens each year. She says the urine and manure these animals produce emit high levels of nitrogen compounds.

"If you look at the European nitrogen emission maps in the Netherlands, it's not even dark red, it's not even purple, but it's black," says Oerlemans. "It's the highest value in Europe as far as it goes for nitrogen emissions."

Oerlemans supports the 2019 Dutch court decision directing the government to do something to drastically cut these emissions, but she also thinks farmers should receive government subsidies while they cull their herds and transition to less intensive farming.

Dutch farmers, though, would prefer to maintain the status quo. They've shut down the nation's highways with their tractors to protest the proposed nitrogen rules.

In the past four years, these rallies have evolved into what's called the Farmer-Citizen Movement, a political party that shocked many earlier this year when it won 16 of the 75 seats in the Dutch Senate, more than any other party.

The party has garnered support well beyond the country's 50,000 farmers and is now polling in third place as the country gears up for a national election in late November.

Farmers' protests have resonated beyond the fields

"People in Holland have the feeling that the government's needs are more important than the needs of the citizens," says Caroline van der Plas, founder of the Farmer-Citizen Movement party, known in Dutch as the BoerBurgerBeweging, or by its acronym, the BBB.

Political analysts and the Dutch media have labeled the BBB a protest movement and a single-issue party, but van der Plas, who spent much of her career as a journalist and is now a member of parliament — and has never worked as a farmer — is quick to differ.

"I have the feeling that people who are afraid of the BBB getting bigger because it, of course, affects the traditional parties and the traditional policies, those are the people who say we are a one-issue party," she says.

In her years in parliament, van der Plas has become popular for her straight-shooting style and her ability to branch out beyond the nitrogen rules to criticize government interference in citizens' lives writ large.

"A lot of people are worried about their future," she says. "They're worried about, 'can my children buy a house in the coming years?' They're worried about all the costs that are soaring, the costs of food and gas. People can't pay their bills anymore because everything is getting so expensive and they find in us a party that they trust."

Van der Plas says she wants government to be more accessible to citizens, not a disembodied entity that is making decisions on behalf of citizens without their consent.

University of Amsterdam political scientist Wouter van der Brug says van der Plas and her party have successfully tapped into a wider sense of unease among Dutch voters that the government isn't serving their interests.

"It's probably arising from a deeper-felt feeling that society's changing too fast and not in a direction that people appreciate," says van der Brug. "And also that these new measures that probably have to be implemented to protect the environment are also being enforced upon us for no good reasons by outside forces."

Farmer Wilbur van der Post, inside his barn with his cows, agrees. He says the proposed nitrogen ban would reduce emissions in the Netherlands, but it wouldn't reduce global nitrogen emissions.

"We produce more per hectare than other countries with the same amount of manure," he says. "The footprint is one of the lowest in the world. If we reduce the agriculture sector here in the Netherlands, other countries will have to produce more. But there, the footprint is higher."

And that's why, he says, he'll be voting for the Farmer-Citizens Movement on election day, Nov. 22. Unless his party ends up in government, he says, no amount of cow-cuddling will be able to soothe his anger at those in positions of power.

Esme Nicholson contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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