MOLENAARSGRAAF, Netherlands — Dutch farmer Nils den Besten wants to double the size of his 70-cow herd and begin using robotic milkers in three years.
He says he doesn't need government handouts to do his job. As the European Union begins cutting its farm subsidies, den Besten figures he'll lose more than 20,000 euros per year (roughly $27,000). But he's ready to rely on the free market and says farmers in the United States shouldn't receive a guaranteed income, either.
Long known for their liberal politics, many Europeans are getting increasingly conservative when it comes to agriculture. And as Congress prepares to pass a new farm bill, European critics are rankled that Washington is not moving to eliminate trade-distorting subsidies. They fear the payments are hurting farmers in the expanded 27-member European Union.
"It's not fair. ... We will lose markets," said den Besten, 25.
As part of a massive overhaul of agriculture, Europe is adopting a policy similar to the U.S. "Freedom to Farm" law, which was passed in 1996 as part of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution. It was aimed at eliminating subsidies, but Congress scrapped it quickly when commodity prices fell.
Lars Hoelgaard, the European Union's deputy director general for agriculture, said Europe has been copying U.S. policy, but the United States keeps changing its policy.
With high corn prices, European officials are particularly puzzled by U.S. proposals to offer more subsidies for biofuels.
"That's crazy, isn't it?" asked Hoelgaard, meeting with a group of American reporters in Brussels recently. "You don't need it."
Jack Thurston, a former special adviser to the British agriculture minister, said the United States is now making agriculture a "nationalized industry." He said that violates the nation's history as a commerce-oriented country in search of new markets and innovation.
"It's a very backward looking, Soviet-style approach," said Thurston.
As part of its changes, the European Union is moving to phase out its system of subsidies in which government aid is linked solely to production. Major crop subsidies are being phased out through 2012, and in exchange farmers are eligible for fixed cash allowances similar to the Freedom to Farm payments approved by Congress in 1996. Under the change, farmers can also qualify for other subsidies, receiving payments for making environmental improvements to their land or growing more competitive niche crops.
The changes come amid growing complaints that too many wealthy farmers and agribusinesses have cashed in on the system.
In 2005, 85 percent of all farm payments went to the largest 18 percent of Europe's farms, according to Thurston. In an attempt to make the case for change, he has created a Web site detailing the payments of Europe's farm subsidies (www.farmsubsidy.org).
"The revelations of some of the richest people in the European Union - and the most aristocratic and the most privileged people - receiving very large taxpayer handouts has raised this issue to the fore," Thurston said. He said the European Union's agricultural policy has "been stretched to a breaking point" by trying to help both large commercial farmers and small farmers who are trying to make a living on marginal land.
To be sure, not all European farmers are ready to give up their government payments.
In Poland, one of the newest members of the European Union, farmers count on subsidies for nearly half of their income. And farmers there say they've faced significantly higher costs for fertilizer and other farm supplies since the fall of communism.
On a small patch of land high in the hills of Zegocina, Polish farmer Czeslaw Golab grows organic plums, apples and pears and raises seven head of cattle. He gets 11,000 zlotys in subsidies each year (roughly $3,800) but says farming is still a losing business proposition. He started farming in 1980 and said he must farm another two years until he turns 55 and is eligible for a government pension.
"To be perfectly honest, I'm not going to make much anymore," Golab said, speaking through an interpreter. "But it's a bit difficult to leave farming now for me because I cannot find employment. I'm not of employable age and profile."
And in southern France, 32-year-old Francois-Xavier Letang laments the changes because he will no longer receive more subsidies simply for growing more crops. He has farmed since 1999, raising wheat, sugar beets, potatoes and hemp as his principal crops.
"It's hard to justify ... an aid that is not based on what you're producing," he said.
Yet even in France, by far the biggest recipient of Europe's agriculture subsidies, there are definite signs of change.
Damien Caze, a director in the French Ministry of Agriculture and Fishing, said that French farmers understand that after 2012, "it will be the end of the policy we have known." And he said that despite the continued strength of the farm lobby, there is a growing debate over how much taxpayers are spending on agriculture.
"This debate is quite new," Caze said. "For the last 10 years, it was a debate which was a little bit impossible to have publicly. ... There is a change of mentalities, a very quick change."
Caze noted that the influence of farmers in France, while still strong, is on the wane because the number of farmers has declined from 2 million to 500,000 in the last 60 years. But he said there will be a limit to consolidation because of the cultural importance to small, locally based farmers.
"There are 20,000 communes - small cities, with 50 to 100 people ... and if you have five farmers, you want to keep them in the village," he said. "Because if you lose those farmers, then you lose the grocery, you lose the bakery and then you lose the school. You have to have those people. ... People tend to consider that they've been living in this village for a thousand years, their family, and they want to stay in this place."
(Editor's note: Rob Hotakainen traveled to the Netherlands, Poland, France and Belgium with 10 other U.S. journalists as part of a European agricultural study tour arranged by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. GMF is a nonpartisan public policy institution that promotes greater understanding of transatlantic issues.)