Night of History brings Flemish farming to life


The annual heritage night looks at the history of agriculture through a varied programme of family events that also explores the future of the sector

Down on the farm

On 24 March, the annual Nacht van de geschiedenis, or Night of History, will bring together historians, local experts and the public across Flanders to learn about and celebrate our common past. The focus this year is on agriculture and fisheries – a wide-ranging theme that also encompasses activities like beekeeping, dairy farming and viticulture.

The event is sponsored by Flemish cultural organisation Davidsfonds, with various local chapters offering activities around the history of their respective areas. A number of these tend towards the prosaic, with dozens of lectures about “the history of farming in our village” and guided tours of a local farm. But many others offer unique experiences or present history in a surprising way.

For instance, in Izenberge, West Flanders, chef Peter Dieryck will prepare a First World War-era meal, while a historian from the Centre for Agrarian History explains how certain crops were saved by farmers and how they were prepared during the war.

In Roosdaal, Flemish Brabant, a performance by Walter Evenepoel in music and spoken word evokes the hardships endured by farmers during the Napoleonic wars, when farm buildings and crops were requisitioned by French soldiers.

Local flavours

The night isn’t just about Flanders’ agricultural past, however; it’s also dedicated to the present and future of farming. In Ichtegem, West Flanders, the latest technologies used by modern farmers, like computer-driven sprayers, will be explained. In Hamme, East Flanders, René Custers from the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology will talk about the pros and cons of genetically modified organisms.

There will also be opportunities to experience, if just for a few hours, the life of a Flemish farmer. In Stevoort, Limburg, the Farmer for One Night programme combines real-life stories, tips on agricultural practices and a visit to a distillery, ending with en boerenhap en een stevige slok (a farmer’s snack and a stiff drink).

In Wambeek, Flemish Brabant, watch a video montage about farming in the 1960s and ’70s, hear stories about farm life and finish with a tasting of local specialities from a nearby farm and brewery.

For those interested in a particular crop, there are presentations about witloof farming in Flemish Brabant, and on the history of the flax industry in West Flanders. Visit a fruit farmer and an auction house in the orchards of Haspengouw in Limburg. In Lier, Antwerp province, take a tour of the greenhouses of Paul Vercammen’s asparagus farm, one of only five in Flanders.

For those who like a drink with their history – and who doesn’t – “beer professor” Denis de Keukeleire will talk about the cultivation of hops, along with a tasting of hoppy beers paired with cheeses, in Aalst. For those who prefer grape to grain, historian Bart Minnen will reveal the secrets of wine-making in Hageland. Afterwards, learn a few drinking songs at a performance by Canticum Novum and put your new knowledge to the test during a wine reception.

Tractors and frietkots

Home gardeners haven’t been forgotten, either. At Tongerlo Abbey, near Antwerp, Wim Lybaert, host of the popular TV programme De moestuin volgens Wim, will talk about the history of certain vegetables and share tips on how to grow them.

There are several presentations on “forgotten vegetables”, old varieties that are making a comeback. In Destelbergen, East Flanders, “plant whisperer” Raf Willaert will talk about the health benefits of herbs and plants.

Other highlights include a programme about Flemish artist Alfred Ost, who painted scenes of rural life between 1910 and 1945 (in Reet, Antwerp province), a visit to a private collection of old-timer tractors and motors (in Westvleteren, West Flanders) and a lecture on the history of frietkot culture – including everything you ever wanted to know about Belgian fries – followed by a tasting (in Kuurne, West Flanders).

With almost 250 events, there’s something happening in every corner of Flanders. Some activities require a fee or advance registration. 

Flemish agriculture and horticulture

Flanders is an important global food exporter. The main agricultural activities differ from region to region – with pig, cow, vegetable and dairy-farming the most important. In recent years, the sector has been heavily affected by the economic downturn and falling global food prices.
Green - Organic farming accounts for just a fraction of Flemish agriculture, but the sector has slowly been growing in recent years.
Greenhouse - Flanders has been a trailblazer in mapping the carbon footprint of agriculture.
Forgotten - Flemish horticulture’s “Bel’Orta” label aims to promote lesser-known vegetables like parsnip, parsley root and kohlrabi.

percent of Belgium’s fruit harvest comes from Flanders

25 982

agriculture businesses in Flanders in 2011

51 530

people employed in Flemish agriculture and horticulture in 2011