And the farmer he ploughed on

Farmers and the soil were the source of inspiration for a group of artists from Groningen. But can artists be a source of inspiration for farmers and soil management? Jan Wiegers, a Groningen painter born in 1893, who struggled with bad health went to Davos for a while, to recuperate in the healthy mountain air. There he met the German painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. As often is the case, such a chance event can have major consequences. Kirchner was the foreman of a German artists' group Die Brücke, and inspired Wiegers with his expressionist style of painting.

Back in Groningen, Wiegers in turn inspired a collective of artists including Jan Altink, who were looking for something new. This collective of artist which was called “De Ploeg” (The plough or The Group) set itself apart from another group of painters from Groningen, the world famous The Hague School, such as Jozef Israëls and Hendrik Willem Mesdag (known from Panorama Mesdag in Scheveningen).

Just as the farmers from Groningen ploughed their soil to make it suitable for cereal crops, the painters of “de Ploeg” wanted to plough their artistic environment and make it suitable for a new form of art. An art that rebelled against the ruling grand masters of the The Hague School and chose a different approach with more freedom in the execution of their work. They were not taken very seriously at first, but eventually became a part of art history with work that became increasingly appreciated. The painters of “De Ploeg” were inspired by the soil and the countryside of Groningen. Inspired by Wiegers and Kirchner they left the realistic style of painting and gave their subjects an expressionist touch. In the expressionist style, painting reality is less important, yet expressing your feelings in relation to the subject predominates. Therefore the sky can be yellow and a tree blue.

This altered the art of realistic images, via personal impressions of reality, to expressions of one's own feelings and one's own inner world in response to what is observed. It paved the way for abstract art. In the soil, the development seems to be just the opposite. The invisible soil life is somewhat abstract and difficult to imagine, but we are working on getting a clearer picture of what is actually happening in the soil. With new technology we are capable of measuring the complete microbial genome, the total DNA of all organisms in the soil. Thanks to these analyses microbial soil life can be charted specifically and with academic accuracy in the coming years.

One of the insights seems to be that we need to plough our agricultural land less often and less deep in order not to ruin and disrupt the accumulated and layered ecosystem every year. In professional terms this is called conservation tillage or non-inversion tillage. Among farmers, there are already some frontrunners that no longer plough in order not to disturb the structure of the soil and soil biology too much. Instead, they just toss and turn the upper centimeters with a grubber, a kind of cultivator with tines and V-shaped hooks to remove weeds and bring in some oxygen. Just as the painters of “De Ploeg“ broke with a long tradition of painting, these farmers likewise break with the old, trusted and indispensable tradition of ploughing. Even though not everyone takes them seriously and finding the right procedure is still puzzling, the first results are promising. Maybe one day we will say: and the farmer, he didn't plough anymore.

Sytze Keuning (

Published in the journal Bodem.