Agriculture in Flanders

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Greenhouses for grapes in Flemish Brabant
Harvest of sugar beets in Tienen

Agriculture and horticulture in Flanders has traditionally a familial character, but just like agriculture in other regions, is increasingly characterised by an increase in scale, modernisation and expansion. In Flanders, intensive sectors constitute the largest segment of agriculture: pig breeding, poultry and dairy farming, vegetables and fruit, ornamental plant culture. In Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium, the emphasis is more on arable farming and extensive soil-based cattle breeding.

Economic importance[edit]

The agricultural sector is becoming increasingly less important in the Flemish economy as a source of employment and value added, but is still the cornerstone of the countryside. In 2008, the gross value added of the primary sector (including hunting, forestry and fishery) had a 0.8% share in the total Flemish gross value added.

In 2010, the final production value of the Flemish agricultural and horticultural sectors’ sales activity was estimated at 5.1 billion euro. That is an 11% increase with respect to 2009 and is the highest figure in the last ten years. Of the total production value, cattle breeding is good for 57%, horticulture 31% and arable farming 12%. The five most important agricultural products are pork (1.3 billion euro), vegetables (720 million euro), dairy products (630 million euro), beef (590 million euro) and ornamental horticulture products (530 million euro).

In 2010, 56,575 people were regularly employed in agriculture and horticulture. Since 2000, the number of people employed has on average dropped by nearly 3% per year. Because there are great many non-regular employees working in agriculture, such as seasonal workers and contractors, we count that figure among the full-time workers. Flemish agriculture and horticulture employs 44,058 full-time workers. 33% of them work in specialised horticultural undertakings, 18% in mixed undertakings and 13% in dairy farms.

Structural aspects[edit]

In 2010, there were 28,331 agricultural undertakings in Flanders. Over the last ten years, the number of undertakings has declined by approximately 30%. That is a decrease of 3.6% per year. At the same time there was a continual increase in scale. In comparison to 2000, the average total arable area has increased by at least 40% to 21.8 ha. 86% of agricultural holdings are specialised in a particular type of farming. With 52%, cattle breeding is by far the most significant specialisation.

The livestock population is also dwindling. In 2010, there were 1.3 million cattle in Flanders, 6.0 million pigs and 29.1 million poultry. That is between 15% and 20% less than ten years ago. Over the last ten years, the total arable area has remained relatively stable (-3%). 46% of the Flemish arable area, or 617,000 ha is utilised for agriculture and horticulture. Meadows, pasturelands and fodder crops account for 60% of the total area, which points to the importance of cattle farming in Flanders.

In 2010, organic farming utilised a cultivated area of 3,822 ha in Flanders, 0.6% of the total arable area. The number of organic farms amounts to 256 units, a net increase of 14 units in comparison to 2009. Over the last years, the cultivated area and the number of holdings has steadily increased, in part under the impulse of the Strategic Action Plan for Organic Agriculture 2008-2012.

Regional distribution[edit]

The importance of the agricultural sector in Flanders depends on the region. An agricultural distribution map shows the result of a classification of municipalities with similar agricultural activity. The typical regions are recognisable: fruit around Sint-Truiden and vegetables around Sint-Katelijne-Waver, Roeselare and Hoogstraten. Ornamental horticulture is practiced around Ghent. Pig breeding makes its home in West Flanders, Meetjesland, Waasland and the Campine. Dairy cattle is important in the Flemish Ardennes and Pajottenland, and in combination with breeding in the Campine. Cattle are primarily found in the region around Bruges, the southern parts of West and East Flanders and in combination with arable farming in Flemish Brabant and South Limburg.

The explanation for this variation is found in history and in factors of soil physics. Breeding farms have installed themselves in the immediate vicinity of the mixed feed industry and the slaughterhouses. Vegetable and fruit cultivation is concentrated around the auction and its derivative industry. Arable farming primarily occurs on rich soils and cattle breeding on poorer soils.

Agriculture and environment[edit]

The eco-efficiency of Flemish agriculture has increased since 2000, as the use of chemical pesticides and nutrients and the emission of greenhouse gasses and fine airborne particles reveal a downward trend. Only the erosion sensitivity caused by land cultivation has increased. The increase in the scale of holdings and the shrinking stock of cattle have reinforced the decrease in emissions.

In 2008, the agricultural sector used 48 million m³ of water. That is slightly more than in 2007, but less than in 2005 and 2006. Of that water, 40% is deep groundwater and a little more than a quarter is rainwater. In 2008, the total energy usage by agriculture amounted to 26 petajoule (PJ). That is less than in 2007. Petroleum is still the most important source of energy, but there is a clear shift towards natural gas and energy from cogeneration (combined heat and power) is also on the rise. Greenhouse cultivation is the largest user of water and energy.

In 2008, the total emissions from greenhouse gasses methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2) from agriculture was 8,385 tons of CO2 equivalents. That is a decrease of 18% compared to 1990. Agriculture does still have an 11% share of the total greenhouse gas emissions, as 56% of N2O emissions and 76% of CH4 emissions come from agriculture. Methane emissions are primarily derived from digestion processes from livestock farming. The exact contribution of Flemish agricultural emissions to total air PM concentrations and to negative health effects are not well known.[1]

Agricultural policy[edit]

International developments have an impact on agriculture in Flanders and Europe: the growing world population, climate change, the depletion of fossil fuels and non-renewable raw materials, the price fluctuations of food products, contact with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In the future, the agricultural sector will also be confronted with an increasing liberalisation of world trade and globalisation of food chains. The recently introduced Europe 2020 strategy and the coming long-range financial framework create a context in which the Common Agricultural Policy will have to demonstrate its relevance and will have to function after 2013.

In 2009 in Flanders, 23,500 farmers received nearly 269 million euro in direct support. That is an average of 11,450 euro per holding. Entitlement rights were good for 233 million euro of this amount. The suckler cow premium was good for 29.1 million euro and the slaughter premium for calves for 5.7 million euro. In 2008, direct support had on average a 5% share of the returns and 25% of farm incomes in agriculture and horticulture. With 27%, dairy farming had the greatest share of direct support, followed by beef cattle with 18% and mixed cattle with 11%.

In 2009, there were more than 102 million euro in government subsidies for the Rural Development Programme in Flanders. Investments with a positive contribution to the environment were good for 26.6 million euro. The largest portion of that went to cogeneration installations (CHPs), photovoltaic cells, solar water heating systems and ammonia-emissions-poor pig stalls. In 2008, rural development support took up 2% of the returns and 9% of farm incomes. Horticulture had a 21% share and with that left the pig and dairy farms behind.

Social aspects[edit]

The average age of operators of professional agricultural holdings has risen from 46.5 years in 2000 to 50 years in 2010. The largest percentage of operators – a fifth – is between 45 and 50 years of age. The middle class and the category 65 years and older have increasing significance. The result is primarily a problem for the smaller farms.

The education level of Flemish farm operators has steady increased over the last decade. In 1959, 95% of farm operators only had practical experience; in 2010, 52%. Today, it is mainly the small farms that are run by operators that only have practical experience. The larger the farm, the more the operators enjoyed a higher level of education. In 2010, 28% of those starting a farm had a higher education, 68% had a secondary education and 4% had a lower education.

Poverty is a reality in the countryside. The number of farmers in need that appeal to the non-profit organisation Farmers at a Crossroads has increased since its founding in 2007 until the number again decreased in 2010. It concerns 200 applications, primarily from West Flanders (82) and East Flanders (47).

Agriculture within the agro-business complex[edit]

The agricultural sector does not stand alone, but is a part of a much broader agro-business complex. Alongside the agricultural and horticultural sectors, an important role is also played by agricultural subcontracting, the food industry and trade. The trend is that a decreasing number of small farms produce increasing turnover and value added. According to the latest figures, the Flemish agro-business complex numbers 42,600 farms liable to VAT and achieves a turnover of 51.7 billion euro and a value added of 6.3 billion euro. Since 2000, the turnover has increased by a quarter. Employment numbers 104,000 workers. The food industry is responsible for more than half of value added and employment.

In 2009, the total Belgian trade in agricultural products recorded a positive trade balance. Export is good for 30 billion euro, while import amounts to 27 billion. Both import and export showed a decrease with respect to 2008. In 2009, the trade surplus also dropped 4% to 3.4 billion euro. Export of agricultural products amounted to a 12% share of the total Belgian export. What is more striking is that the agricultural sector represents approximately a quarter of the total Belgian trade surplus. The trade surplus may be mainly attributed to animal products, such as pork, and to agro-industrial products (farming materials, fertiliser and pesticides). Concerning garden produce, the export of frozen vegetables is noteworthy.


  1. ^ Buekers, J; Janssen, S; Veldeman, N; Int Panis, L (March 2014). "Fine atmospheric particles from agricultural practices in Flanders: from emissions to health effects and limit values". Outlook on Agriculture 43 (1): 39–44.  Missing |last4= in Authors list (help)


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