Yesterday, HRH Queen Mathilde of Belgium visited the dairy farm Koeweidehof in Merchtem, just outside Brussels, where she talked to eight women in agriculture. The conversation took place in the context of the Ladies Day, which was supposed to take place on December 9th at the Belgian agriculture fair Agribex which had to cancel due to the developments of the pandemic in Belgium. The meeting between the women and the Queen was subsequently moved to the Koeweidehof in Merchtem, just 10 kilometers from the Heizel Expo where Agribex was supposed to take place.
December 9 was designated Ladies Day at the Agribex agricultural fair. With this event, the fair organization wanted to put women in agriculture in the spotlight. Gracienne Geenens, board member of Agribex, explains how Ladies’ Day came about as an initiative two years ago. “Women in our sector are often at the centre of the businesses, but their presence and work are barely mentioned. Their role in agriculture is taken for granted. It may seem that our sector is a man’s world, but that’s a misconception. More often then not, it’s the women who lead. That’s what we wanted to talk about.”
It was planned that Queen Mathilde would visit the fair in Brussels during Ladies’ Day and talk to a number of ladies from the agricultural and supplying sectors. After Agribex was cancelled at the end of last month because of the stricter measures regarding the covid crisis, the organisation decided to move the meeting between the Belgian Queen and the female farmers to the Koeweidehof in Merchtem. “We have a space here that we use for team building activities. It was ideal for this meeting”, Marijke d’Hertefelt, co-owner of the dairy farm, explains.
Women farmers talk about the problems they face
The Queen, who had agreed to the relocation to the dairy farm, spoke with eight women farmers, including pig farmer Mieke Verniest, whose story appeared in Women in Ag Magazine #1, and Siska Vanpeteghem. During the discussion, the role of women in farming was highlighted and the problems and challenges they face came to light.
Gracienne Geenens explains it this way: “The social debate on agriculture is often subject to very black or white communication, where every form of nuance is lost and the sector is presented in a negative light. Agriculture is often presented as the source of everything that’s wrong today, and the people working in this sector, who have to cope with crippling bills rendering investments impossible and compromising the yield of their businesses, are losing courage in these conditions.”
For Geenens, the fact that the Queen wanted to hear these women means everything to the Belgian farmers. Marijke d’Hertefelt agrees: “It’s nice when someone in that kind of position wants to listen to you. She was genuinely interested, asked a lot of questions and showed that she has respect for the industry and the work we do.”
Guided tour of Koeweidehof dairy farm
After the consultation, the hostess, who runs the Koeweidehof with her husband Bart Vanderstraeten, took the Queen for a tour of the dairy farm. Her Royal Highness received explanations about the milking machine and the automatic feeding robot and she also took the time to feed the calves.
During the tour, Queen Mathilde listened to her hosts who explained the underestimated role of female farmers in agriculture, and was introduced to circular agriculture. “For us, it is a good thing that we can explain to everyone, including the Queen, that sustainability is a broad concept”, d’Hertefelt stated. “The livestock industry is far too often put in a bad light and catalogued as a greenhouse gas emitter. We are doing everything we can here to absorb those greenhouse gases. We process methane into energy in our biogas plant. In our fields, we keep carbon (CO2) in the soil by working the ground as little as possible. Agriculture is a partner in this climate battle. But it is about time we get the public to understand this.”
The dairy farmer also told Queen Mathilde about future initiatives to close the circle on their farm even further. “A remainder of the green power we generate goes to the craft beer brewery Brussels Beer Project. It would be nice if in the future we could use their draff in the feed ration of our cows. We are also considering installing an electric charging station that we will feed with power from the pocket digester. This charging station could be used by employees who meet with us as part of team building events.”
Pictures: Marc Van Coile/Agribex