An invitation to a World Economic Forum workshop in Amsterdam becomes doubly exciting when one gets to venture out of the hotel. At such conferences, a typical day starts at eight in the morning and finishes post-dinner; around ten at night. Normally, the same hotel hosts the conference and the delegates, leaving no scope to check out the sights. Most participants, having travelled across many time zones, do not get over their jet lag in an airport-hotel-airport schedule.
After having attented conferences from Addis Ababa to Kathmandu (where I have reached in the morning, participated in a full day’s session and taken the flight back home in the evening, not even spending a night in the foreign country) I have promised myself not to rush back home once the conference ends. Such promises are easier to make than stick to because there is pressing work back home. As a farmer I am committed to spending at least a couple of weeks on the farm, for that is what farmers do — farm.
Yet the allure of undertaking strenuous travels is compelling: meeting people with diverse backgrounds, deliberating on agriculture, receiving fresh insights to old problems and understanding new issues. Even the thought is beguiling; the opportunity to learn is vast. Some thoughts get contradicted while others get validated in an opening of the mind.
The Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agri-food products in the world contributing an €48 billion value addition to the Dutch economy. On the first night, dinner is served on the premises of an old Tabaco trading house, reminiscent of Holland’s magnificent trading empire like no other. On day two, we managed to squeeze in time for other activities.
We are close to the Bloemenveiling Aalsmeer (VBA) in Aalsmeer market – the flower auction market. At 5:30 in the morning, nudged by my friend Vijay Sardana and accompanied by an ever-smiling Gene Moses of the International Finance Corporation, we walk out hoping to cover 5 kms in an hour. First, we encounter large, black wild rabbits by the dozens on the lawns outside before it starts to drizzle and we come scurrying back to the hotel to take a taxi to the centre. The rabbits remind us of stray dogs on Indian roads, just better looking and, thankfully, shy
This is the venue for the world’s largest flower auction and flower market with 12.5 billion flowers and plants sold year. There are more than 100,000 transactions a day amounting to an annual €4.4 billion turnover. The total area of the building is equal to 220 football fields that includes 55,000 square metre of cold storage. The scale is humungous. The entry to the auction centre costs €6 each
The building has a walkway about 15 feet above the floor. On the floor below us thousands of small mechanized carts are pulling trollies stacked with pallets of flower crates. The activity appears like an animated movie or a video game. It takes more an hour to walk leisurely around the circuit, leaning over the railing or reading posts on the walkway explaining things and simply enjoying the faint whiff of a million flowers.
The auction process is connected worldwide; its clock is a circle numbered from one to hundred, around which a red lamp moves. These numbers correspond to the price offered. This is the Dutch system of auctioning where bids go from a high to a low price. The auctioneer starts the lamp at a high number (high price) and lets it go down. If a buyer wants to bid on a lot, he presses a button. If he is the first one to do so, the lamp stops and the number at which it has stopped is the winning bid price.
On the third day, we visit the Wageningen UR (University & Research), an epicentre of knowledge and learning. It has 10,000 students from more than 100 countries, 6,500 employees with a turnover of €700 million. We have a full day of workshops and I first attend the workshop on “GIS Mapping and Remote Sensing” learning about GIS, drones and satellite technology use in agriculture.
Indians captivated with drone strikes on militants and terrorists in Pakistan and Middle-East are excited about the technology and have concluded that the drones are the answer to crop estimation and crop damage assessment. I come out a sober person; drones are only of use once there is comprehensive mapping of all essential data like soil profile, historic crop patterns, yields along with updated weather and land records. Until such time as we collect all data efficiently, they are just toys for boys.
After lunch in the student’s canteen, we are rushed to the post-lunch workshop where I have chosen “Agricultural Economics & Rural Policy”. Things get more exciting, a two-hour free flowing discussion on the world agriculture economy, including the European agricultural policy, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Indian fertilizer subsidies leaves one wanting the session to be extended by another two hours.
My fears are validated at the premier world institute by the fantastic Hon’ble Prof. Hans Van Meiji: “Those that do not sign the TTIP will be left to fend for themselves and Indian farm exports to the TTIP member states will suffer”. It is, however, the response to a question on the quantum of European farm subsidies, that boggled the mind: €40 billion. Converted to rupees, the figure is a string of zeros: about `300,000 crores. In Europe, a lot of farm subsidies are delivered in the form of environment protection programmes, making it difficult to assess their actual magnitude
We realize that the World Soil museum is just across the road. Skipping the conversations after the workshop, we hurry there to find it closed. The attendant is nice enough to open the premises for us. The magnitude of knowledge on exhibition more than compensates for the small space. The world below our feet is literally exposed on the walls. Holland is full of exciting and fun surprises.
I have half a day free before my flight at 1 pm. I do what I have wanted to do for some years. I visit the Van Gogh museum. Van Gogh was an eccentric artist who loved painting rural landscapes and ordinary people. He believed that to express true peasant feelings in his art, he had to live with them.
I extend that belief to the broader picture of farm advocacy. Those advocating on behalf of farmers must either be practising farmers or be living with them to understand their issues and feelings. With those thoughts, I hop on to my bus to the airport to leave for warmer weather at home to sell my bitter gourd, check my carrots and plant my potatoes.
As I said, there is always work back home