Together toward a (not so) new agricultural vision: the rag picker's call

While we are still recovering from the Lower House elections and preparing for a new cabinet, tempers continue to run high in the agriculture debate. Nitrogen, glyphosate, climate change, animal welfare; it is clear that the conversation is at an impasse in many areas. "We need a vision!" it often sounds then in farm country. But is the problem really a lack of vision or rather a surplus? What we really need is a story that brings together the best of existing visions, supplemented with new insights. So let's work on that: a vision that makes everyone happy. And let's not underestimate the help of the rag-and-bone man.
Published on Nov 23, 2023

We are not that far apart at all

In recent years, we've brought them up many times: the wizard and the prophet. Two seemingly opposing positions in the agricultural debate, borrowed from Charles Mann and put down, exaggeratedly, as an optimistic tech-lover who believes in growth and pins her hopes on innovation (the wizard) and a pessimistic nature-lover who defends the ecological interest in a prophetic voice and to degrowth (the prophet). By now we have seen many times that the magician and the prophet are not so far apart at all, and that in many areas they can work well together.

And that helps: if you discover that the contradictions are not so extreme, you can also bridge them more easily. For example, wizards and prophets found each other just last October during an evening at De Balie (where Charles C. Mann was also present): there we brought together farmers, a member of parliament, an agricultural spokesman, a fertilizer lobbyist, a bio-lobbyist, a Rabo banker, a professor of soil diversity and a philosopher, among others. Did they get into an argument? No way, on many topics a people-to-people conversation turned out to be quite possible. 

Moderator Kees Foekema in conversation with Charles C. Mann

A third figure

What also helps is to realize that the debate does not consist only of magicians and prophets. During the Balie evening, philosopher Lisa Doeland added a third figure, the "rag picker," of which there are also many walking among the rubble of the collapsed Agricultural Agreement. Imagine an inconspicuous, and therefore often overlooked figure, who has no big dreams but lives off the shards of other people's dreams. So far, the rag picker has not been a defining figure for history because he does not fit the picture of progress. But he can become a defining figure, if we start listening to him more carefully. Because while the magician and the prophet shout their ideas and solutions to each other at the loudest, the rag picker is the only one observing what is already happening. Sometimes the solution is not grand and new, but something that has been going on for a long time. Something we overlook because it seems cluttered, or ordinary. The rag picker has an eye for the real value of such a solution.


"While the magician and the prophet shout their thinking and solutions at each other at the loudest, the rag picker is the only one who sees what is already happening."

Philosopher Lisa Doeland recites column on rag picker

Looking for low-hanging fruit together

Many rag pickers have also been at work in the agricultural debate. After Lisa Doeland introduced the figure, many Balie visitors immediately identified themselves as rag pickers. According to Eline Vedder, CDA MP and dairy farmer, there are also a lot of rag pickers running around in the agricultural debate. Only: you don't hear them very well. They're not as loud as the wizards and the prophets. Sometimes they are also too busy with the daily business, for example on their own farm. And so we have to listen extra carefully to hear them. According to Roy Meijer, president of the Nederlands Agrarisch Jongeren Kontakt, just about all young farmers are rag pickers. But in the political arena, people are still far too preoccupied with the extremes.

And what did Charles C. Mann really think of this third position, next to "his" magician and prophet? He, too, believed in the added value of the rag-and-bone man. He urged us to look carefully at all kinds of agriculture that don't fit into the magician or prophet book, but from which we can learn.

Not another vision

Everyone present seemed to agree: there are already enough solutions and the polarization between the magicians and the prophets is not so bad. We don't need another new, extreme vision; we need people who can oversee and combine the existing visions and solutions. In other words, rag pickers. Can they get us out of the impasse? 


"Everyone seemed to agree: there are already enough solutions, and the polarization between the wizards and the prophets is actually not so bad."


It can be done, but it takes patience. And a strategy. A plan. An agenda. What are we going to do, with whom and when? And who will make the first move? How do we put an end to the eternal 'passing the ball' - which, despite all understanding and good intentions, we saw happen during the Balie evening? The farmer points at the MP, the MP lends her ear to the lobbyist, the lobbyist hides behind the scientist, the scientist pretends to be objective, the philosopher feels like a voice in the wilderness and the banker 'just does his job'. What would happen if everyone showed a little more color? And what if we started actively trying our best to get the rag pickers to talk more? 

Roy Meijer, chairman NAJK speaks out

Jump in and join the conversation

What about you? Do you feel more like a magician, prophet or rag picker - or do you think there is a whole other position that we also need in order to reach a good solution? Do you pick up the rags others don't even see, and is it time we listened to you for once? The coming period you can 'jump in' at several moments and let your voice be heard. For example, during the Summit from Below, on Wednesday, December 6. In the afternoon of this day we will continue the conversation in De Balie. Sign up if you want to join the conversation.



Photography: Jan Boeve