Judith De Vor, Snelrewaard (the Netherlands)
Judith De Vor grew up around the countryside, but only decided to farm herself later. The interest in agriculture was always there, though. When it turned out that her husband was eager to take over his parents’ farm, she had quickly made her choice: Judith became a farmer. From her farm in Snelrewaard (near Utrecht, Netherlands), Judith is trying to raise awareness for her job by sharing about her passion for agriculture.
Judith De Vor grew up near the Dutch town of Oudewater, not far from Utrecht. A true countryside kid, Judith used to practice horseriding at a nearby sheep farmer. Her love for the countryside showed in her study choices later on. With university educations in economics, public administration and an agricultural MBA, Judith initially went to work as a strategic consultant. “I have always been very involved in the community and, in addition to my volunteer work, have also been active in local politics for 12 years,” she says.
In 2011, Judith and her husband Rick decided to move to his parents’ farm in order to take it over. Today she lives with Rick and her children Ivo (12), Eline (10) and Luc (8) on dairy and educational farm De Elihoeve in Snelrewaard, a farm with a long history. “The farm has been in the family for several generations and has always been a dairy farm, although there were also pigs here until 40 years ago. On the spot where our farm is located – along the small river Lange Linschoten – people have been farming for more than 1000! It is a wonderful place to live, a privilege to see the children grow up here. And, following its ancient tradition, our farm remains a family business.”
“It took me a while to figure out what I wanted my role to be on the farm”, Judith remembers. “Rick has always wanted to be a farmer, since he was a kid. For me, it was a very conscious choice: I wanted to be more than just the farmer’s wife, and so I fully chose to work on the farm. Today, farming has become my passion. So now I am a fulltime farmer and I know this is where I belong!”
The Elihoeve has 120 milking cows. “Every cow has a name we give it when it is born”, Judith explains. “Our cows are not numbers. We know them all by name and a lot of them have been with us for over twelve years. Which means it is always hard on me when one of them dies.”
Judith and Rick do almost all the work among themselves. A contractor helps with the work in the field every now and then and her father-in-law also lends a hand when things are busy. They milk in the traditional way for Flanders and the Netherlands: in a milking parlour. “The cows are outside most of the year. From spring through fall, they go out to pasture.” The methods on the farm may be traditional, but otherwise the farm is very modern and there is a strong commitment to sustainability and new technologies. “Soil quality and biodiversity are the foundations of our farm. Animal welfare is hugely important to us. We also generate our own energy, do a lot of landscape and nature management, work with GPS and use other smart solutions. Everything to take the best possible care of the farm now, but also for the future”, Judith, who is also committed to raising awareness and educating about agriculture, explains. “Our farm is also educational. For example, I organize activities for school classes and open days to give people an insight into life on the farm.” Groups are welcome on the farm for meetings, introducing people to a dairy farm. Thousands of people visit the farm every year. Judith and Rick’s family are very involved in what they do. “During silage, haying or school visits and farm tours, the family are always here to help. We always end those days by eating and drinking together. It’s such a pleasure to work hard together as a family.”
“Our farm is located in a large polder area, but our neighbors live thirty meters (98.5 ft, red.) away. That means we have to be mindful of the people around us.”
Being a dairy farmer in the Netherlands
Judith’s farm is located in the heart of the Netherlands, where there is much debate about the place of agriculture and there are regular farmers’ protest, the last one just recently. “The Netherlands is a crowded country with a lot of urbanization,” explains Judith. “Yet the soil in our country is very fertile and there is a very nice maritime climate, with four distinct seasons in a year.” A land of great contrasts where space is precious commodity. “Our farm is located in a large polder area but is almost adjacent to the neighboring city. Our neighbors live thirty meters (98.5 ft, red.) away. That means we have to be mindful of the people around us,” she says. “However, we see the beauty in that. We like to farm in sync with our environment.” The Elihoeve is largely located on peat soil, which causes land subsidence. A hot topic in certain regions of the Netherlands. “Our provincial government is very much working to counteract this land subsidence. This will probably have an impact on our land and the way we can use it.”
Sustainable agriculture, which the Elihoeve is committed to, is becoming more important than ever in the Netherlands in these uncertain times for the Dutch farmers. “Plans are currently being made to protect nature more in my country. That means that in some places farmers will have to extensify or make way for nature. The regulations and words sometimes used in political debates create quite a bit of ambiguity when it comes to the future of livestock farming in the Netherlands, and communication is not always optimal.
As a result, there are now many farmers who live in fear because of the uncertainty of whether they will be allowed to continue farming or will have to stop what their families have been doing for generations. Banks have also become cautious as a result. All this puts enormous pressure on the Dutch farmers. Emotions are running high and I see many farmers who struggle with mental health problems. This really concerns me. So I am always trying to think how I can help other farmers. In spite of everything, I still believe that there is a future for sustainable agriculture in the Netherlands. We’ll just have to think of different ways to do it.”
If reactions on social media can sometimes be very hard towards agriculture, and especially dairy farming, Judith can put this into perspective. “The thing is, there wasn’t that much resistance when we started here,” she says. “But sometimes, things seem worse than they actually are. We find that a lot of people are happy with the way farmers ensure the production of good and healthy food. It’s just that you don’t always hear those people in the media. Fortunately, we do on our farm. I try not to focus on the negative reactions too much and instead work on the things I have influence over and that give me energy, even though it is not always easy to let go”, says Judith, who dreams of a farm shop and other initiatives to sell farm products.
Joy in the little things
A typical workday starts at 6am for Judith and Rick, who go out to milk then. After the milking, Judith takes care of the calves, the young animals and the family’s two horses. “When I’m done with that I make sure we have breakfast with the kids before they go to school, and then I tackle desk work: working on the computer, preparing for a meeting or working on a project.” In the afternoon, the cows and calves must be fed again. Afterwards, there is time to do chores in the yard or home. “At the end of the afternoon, it’s time to get the cows off the pasture. When that is done I make time for the children: we do something fun together or I help them with their homework.”
After supper, the couple needs to milk the cows again before feeding the calves and young animals. And then the evening shift often starts for Judith: “Meetings and gatherings are frequent here in the evenings. They often happen in my own meeting room where I am eihter the host or a speaker.” When Judith is not looking after her cows, she is organising activities on the farm or on the road to give lectures in the Netherlands or abroad.
It’s the little things on and around her farm that allow Judith to recharge: being outside with the children, taking care of her animals, enjoying the sight of her cows in the sun in their pasture, cuddling with a cow, having good conversations with friends around a campfire… all these little things bring her joy. “Nature and the little things on the farm bring me so much joy. The birth of a calf that went well, people who are genuinely surprised and happy about what we all do, those are all things that make me so happy.”
Farmer, speaker, agvocate
Although Judith does not experience prejudice toward her as a woman in agriculture now, she indicates that this has not always been the case. “I have a little less muscle power and don’t find machines that interesting, but I feel I am being treated like an equal. At the bank, for example. But this has not always been the case. Ten years ago, I knew nothing and had to learn almost everything. Today, I am the owner and decision maker, same as my husband”, Judith, who know it is not always easy being a woman in agriculture, says. “I see so much strength and potential in women that is not yet fully used, because either they can’t see it or they are not being recognized. I think many ladies, like me, come to live on a farm and have to find a way to fit in there in a way that allows them to use their talent and find their passion. Many women have so many jobs: the farm, their family and often a job away from the farm!”
“We need to come forward as women. We have a crucial role to play in society and certainly with regards to the changes that are coming in agriculture. We need to create awareness and help support other (young) women. I would love to set up some kind of mentoring program in the near future.”
In addition to her work on the farm, Judith is very active in creating more awareness and understanding of the agricultural sector. She does this by talking about her work. “I see so much passion for agriculture from farmers! That’s why I like to share about all that we do to produce good, healthy and safe food. A lot of people no longer know where their food comes from and what happens before it reaches their plate. There are quite a few preconceptions about the farm and certainly animal husbandry in the world.”
“The way the outside world sometimes looks at or talks about farmers, the image that is portrayed, makes me very sad. The way people who work very hard to ensure good food are dismissed as part of a problem, often out of lack of knowledge or polarization… And that’s why I am trying to show how it is really done and why I want to share my story.”
One of the preconceptions about farmers is that farmers and nature are not compatible. Nothing is farther from the truth, and this is something Judith addresses when she shares about her life on the farm. “We are part of nature, we work in the middle of nature and depend on it. So I like to show how we take care of the nature around us. We work hard to protect the endangered farmland birds, for instance.”
“I am involved with three parties that enable me to tell my story and promote the agricultural sector internationally as well through Nuffield, the Global Farmer Network and TeamAgroNL. I talk about the bright sides but also about the challenges. We can learn a great deal from farmers and ranchers in other countries and through this create a new perspective on how we view the future of agriculture. And besides, it is fun to get toghether! I think it’s so important to tell our own story. If we don’t do it, someone else will do it for us, and they can’t tell our story as well as we can.”
“There are so many extraordinary people and farmers in the world, I am immensely grateful that I get to meet them all through these networks. It is tremendously inspiring to see how farmers from places like Nepal, Nigeria and Uruguay deal with the challenges in agriculture.”
If Judith could give young women who dream of a career in agriculture a piece of advice, it is to dare. “Follow your heart, listen to your gut feeling, figure out what energizes you and make sure you have good people around you who can think with you and support you. Look for opportunities and possibilities, focus on them and just dare to take a leap!”
Judith De Vor runs the dairy and educational farm De Elihoeve with her husband Rick in Snelrewaard, near Utrecht (Netherlands). When she is not among her dairy cows, Judith organizes (educational) events on the farm or goes out to give lectures. Judith is passionate about her profession and tries to raise awareness about agriculture and animal husbandry. She does this both by giving regular lectures and by talking about her work online. As an ambassador with the Dutch organization TeamAgroNL, she is helping to bring the stories of Dutch food producers to the outside world. She continues that work worldwide as a Nuffield scholar and as a member of Global Farmer Network, where she also learns much from others.
You can find Judith