Welcome to Flevoland
The most engineered part of the Netherlands
God created the Earth and the Dutch created Flevoland. If you look closely at its landscape, a story about progress and engineering emerges as a result of a post-war drive to eliminate hunger. In this special feature, we look back at the origins of Flevoland and introduce you to its inventor, the pioneers who first settled it, and the “superfarmers” who cultivated it.
The man with the plan
Cornelis Lely (1854-1929) was an engineer who became Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management. The Zuiderzee Works were his life's work. He first presented his plan for land reclamation as early as 1891, but it was not fully realized until the middle of the twentieth century. He did not live to see its realization, and could never have dreamed that a statue of him would one day stand on the Afsluitdijk, the dyke that turned part of the North Sea into a freshwater lake known as the IJsselmeer.
More about Lely:
The first years of the polder
In 1940, after the dyke was completed and reclamation could begin, Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands. Flevoland’s future became uncertain: it was unclear what the Germans thought of the plan and whether the reclamation would go ahead. This was an expensive project, requiring huge quantities of building materials and manpower. But the Germans were attracted by the idea of creating new land with a great deal of agricultural potential, and went ahead.
The polder as a hiding place
Many workers avoided their duty as soldiers
Sicco Mansholt was one of the first farmers in Flevoland, and later became the founder of European agricultural policy.
You can hear more about him here:
Maakbaar land zoekt nieuwe boeren
“Hier wonen de pioniers die samen een polder bouwen, uit alle oorden van het land zijn ze gekomen.”
The Noordoostpolder was enclosed by a dike, built from both ends at the same time, until the great moment when the two halves came together. Within that ring lay 48,000 hectares of flat, fertile land that could be laid out as desired. They say God created the Earth, and the Dutch created Flevoland.
It took until after the second world war to prepare the land for development. What did people want back then? Priority was given to agriculture, because after the terrible winter famine of 1944-45, the Netherlands wanted never to be hungry again. An unprecedented piece of farming land was created on the drawing board, and two years after liberation, in 1947, the Rijksdienst voor de IJsselmeerpolders allocated the first farms on the Noordoostpolder.
More about the “superfarmers”,
Selecting the superfarmers
Many of the workers who reclaimed the polder were hoping to own new farms themselves, but the land was in great demand and the dream reserved for only a few.
Due to the enormous demand for farms in the Noordoostpolder, extremely strict selection criteria were used. Over ten thousand men and women applied, but only 1,700 were deemed good enough by the government. They used a form of social engineering to seek out “superfarmers” who could maximise the yields from this fertile new land. The new residents were selected through a very extensive and detailed procedure.
So how did the selection process work, and who was considered suitable as a pioneer to open up this new land?
More about the selection
The farmer who succeeded, but became homesick.
"I was a farmer's son from the Zeeuws-Vlaanderen region in the southwestern Netherlands. My father's business had been lost in the North Sea flood of 1953. I was modest: I applied not for one of the largest farms, which were 48 hectares, but for the second largest, because I thought I had a better chance. “The first interview was quite tough, because I was really tested on my professional knowledge. They asked what my faith was, was I active in the church, did I know how much milk a cow gives. They made an unannounced home visit, and ran their fingers along the skirting boards to see if they were dusty. “My wife had to show them the crafts she made at sewing school; they checked if she was a good housewife, and asked what she thought of the idea of living on the polder. At Christmas, they told us to come. So I went ahead with the cows, and the others stayed behind in Noord-Holland to pack up the household goods and come later. That's how it went: first the cows, then the rest. The first few years, I wondered: what have I got myself into? I missed home. There was just nothing there during those first years.”
The polder worker who wanted to become a farmer
"My brother took over my father's farm, so I had no land. I was in the army, and when I returned I attended an information meeting about renting farms on the new polder. That was my dream, so I came here as a polder worker and applied for a farm. I was rejected seven times, and wasn’t told why. My house was always tidy during the home visits. “I’ve been a polder worker in Flevoland ever since, and I still think it's a beautiful country; you see the potential of fertility when you drive through it. I still regret that I was never allowed to become a farmer. When I drive through the polder in the spring and see all that promise, yes, it does excite me sometimes. and I have to be careful not to become jealous."
The farmer who did get a farm, and whose son succeeded him
"All the application documents clearly stated that there was nothing there, and we really had to build it all ourselves. I was asked if I wanted to join the school board, and the fact that I’d played in the brass band at home was also seen as positive. “I waited for the yellow envelope, and when I heard that my wish had been fulfilled, I drove straight there on a Sunday. The land, the house, and the business were not ready. The first year, I sowed and planted the farm on my own, which was real pioneering: making something out of nothing, and then seeing it grow. I enjoyed farming there for 25 years. “I passed it on to our eldest son, and he's at it now. His son is interested too. Yes, I can say that my dream has come true.”
Has Lely's dream come true?
Damming the Zuiderzee and creating the polders helped to restore Dutch pride after times of loss. These had included not only the war itself, but also a major famine during the winter of 1944-1945, known as the hongerwinter (hunger winter), and the great North Sea flood of 1953.
The superfarmers lived up to expectations, achieving high levels of output and making Flevoland a big agricultural success, though other provinces eventually caught up. Today, this young province takes great pride in its “chosen few”, the adventurous pioneers whose vision and motivation brought the polder into existence. Lely's great dream verged on monomania; he had the imagination to drain away all the water and create a new land, a major advance at a time of great difficulties.
But land reclamation is never finished, times change, and the twenty-first century presents challenges of its own.