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Agriculture and fishing formed the primary sector of the economy in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. Dutch agriculture was modernized and commercialized: new crops and agricultural techniques raised levels of production so that they were in line with market demands, and cheap grain was imported annually from the Baltic region in large quantities. According to estimates, about 120,000 tons of imported grain fed about 600,000 people; that is, about a third of the Dutch population. Importing the grain, which would have been expensive and time consuming for the Dutch to have produced themselves, kept the price of grain low and thus stimulated individual demand for other foodstuffs and consumer goods.
Apart from this, being able to give up labor-intensive grain production freed both the land and the workforce for more productive agricultural divisions. The peasants specialized in livestock husbandry and dairy farming as well as in cultivating industrial crops and fodder crops; flax, madder, and rape were grown, as were tobacco, hops, and turnips. These products were bought mostly by urban businesses. There was also a demand among urban consumers for dairy products such as butter and cheese, which, in the sixteenth century, had become more expensive than grain. The high prices encouraged the peasants to improve their animal husbandry techniques; for example, they began feeding their animals indoors in order to raise the milk yield of their cows.
In addition to dairy farming and cultivating industrial crops, a third sector of the Dutch economy reflected the way in which agriculture was being modernized-horticulture. In the sixteenth century, fruit and vegetables were to be found only in gardens belonging to wealthy people. This changed in the early part of the seventeenth century when horticulture became accepted as an agricultural sector. Whole villages began to cultivate fruit and vegetables. The produce was then transported by water to markets in the cities, where the consumption of fruit and vegetables was no longer restricted to the wealthy.
As the demand for agricultural produce from both consumers and industry increased, agricultural land became more valuable and people tried to work the available land more intensively and to reclaim more land from wetlands and lakes. In order to increase production on existing land, the peasants made more use of crop rotation and, in particular, began to apply animal waste to the soil regularly, rather than leaving the fertilization process up to the grazing livestock. For the first time industrial waste, such as ash from the soap-boilers, was collected in the cities and sold in the country as artificial fertilizer. The increased yield and price of land justified reclaiming and draining even more land.
The Dutch battle against the sea is legendary. Noorderkwartier in Holland, with its numerous lakes and stretches of water, was particularly suitable for land reclamation and one of the biggest projects undertaken there was the draining of the Beemster lake, which began in 1608. The richest merchants in Amsterdam contributed money to reclaim a good 7,100 hectares of land. Forty-three windmills powered the drainage pumps so that they were able to lease the reclamation to farmers as early as 1612, with the investors receiving annual leasing payments at an interest rate of 17 percent. Land reclamation continued, and between 1590 and 1665 almost 100,000 hectares were reclaimed from the wetland areas of Holland, Zeeland, and Friesland. However, land reclamation decreased significantly after the middle of the seventeenth century because the price of agricultural products began to fall, making land reclamation far less profitable in the second part of the century.
Dutch agriculture was finally affected by the general agricultural crisis in Europe during the last two decades of the seventeenth century. However, what is astonishing about this is not that Dutch agriculture was affected by critical phenomena such as a decrease in sales and production, but the fact that the crisis appeared only relatively late in Dutch agriculture. In Europe as a whole, the exceptional reduction in the population and the related fall in demand for grain since the beginning of the seventeenth century had caused the price of agricultural products to fall. Dutch peasants were able to remain unaffected by this crisis for a long time because they had specialized in dairy farming, industrial crops, and horticulture. However, toward the end of the seventeenth century, they too were overtaken by the general agricultural crisis.