9 - Reclaiming: cultivating wild lands

After the polder soils had dried up, they needed to be cultivated and made suitable for their final purpose. In the Noordoostpolder, every square meter was destined for agriculture. Trees were planted only where crops would grow poorly. In order to make the polder soil suitable for agricultural use, it was initially prepared for planting. This was supervised by the Management Board of the Wieringermeer (Noordoostpolder Works). They ensured good drainage and a good structure of the soil. In the early years of the Noordoostpolder, that work coincided with the Second World War as well as a lack of funds (see also pane 10). The digging of dewatering ditches and canals during that time happened mainly with shovels. The living conditions of the workers were often poor. At that time, the foundation was laid for the many heroic pioneer stories that are still being told today.

Work team in the Noordoostpolder during the construction. The workers carried the construction shack to the new workplace. They regularly worked 12-14 hours, interrupted only by half-an-hour breaks.
Land reclamation

Until the nineteenth century, the preparation of the dried land for cultivation during land reclamation projects was left to the new landowners or to those who leased the land from those owners. At that time, the land was only 'blackened' by the drainers: the dried-up land was dewatered and covered with the soil that came from the ditches. As a result, the first crops in most polders, such as the Anna Paulownapolder and the Haarlemmermeer, were very disappointing. This led to poverty and many bankruptcies. In order to make the polders in the Zuiderzee a success, the State itself took responsibility for the cultivation of the dried-up land. Only when they were suitable for agricultural exploitation, they would be released. The cultivation of the Noordoostpolder had been in the hands of the Management Board of the Wieringermeer (Noordoostpolder Works), in short the Management Board since 1941 (see also pane 27).

Drainage tools: laying hook, drain foam shovel, ‘sleufzichtje’ [trench level], small trench shovel, 1946.

Cultivation

The Noordoostpolder officially went dry on 9 September, 1942, but in June 1941, work was already underway to cultivate the edge of the polder between Kuinre and Blokzijl. A lot of experience had been gained in the Wieringermeer. It turned out that the desalination of the soil could be enhanced by a rapid removal of excess water via an extensive system of ditches, trenches and channels. The Board of Directors called in thousands of workers for the groundwork. It was not until after World War II that mechanical ditch ploughs replaced the manual work. The digging of the ditches was almost completed by 1949.

Video: The reclamation of the Noordoostpolder. Fragment from the film "Work camp Noordoostpolder" from 1946. This instruction film shows the work on the reclamation of the Noordoostpolder. The workers were given shelter in the residential barracks.

120 million drainage pipes

Between 1946 and 1955, the ditches were replaced by drainage pipes. In total, approximately 120 million tubes with a total length of 40,000 kilometres were laid in the ground. Concrete piping was installed only where the water did not contain acids.

Photo of drainage test field N from a helicopter, 1948.

Great form of Agriculture 

In order to prepare the land for the release, it was farmed by the Management Board for several years after the drainage. This so-called Grootlandbouwbedrijf (large agricultural enterprise) reached its largest size in 1949 with more than 32,000 hectares. The work was done by reclamation enterprises of about five hundred hectares each. Those farms, or state farms, are of the Wieringermeer-type and therefore do not have the shed made of vibrated concrete on the property which is characteristic of the Noordoostpolder (see also pane 16).

The first farm of Noordoostpolder is located on plot R76, 1-12-1942.

The reclamation project, led by an agricultural supervisor, was executed by shift foremen and farm workers with prior reclamation industry experience. Almost all supervisors, foremen and many farm workers were 'hunting' for their own farm. Supervisors and foremen had the best chances. Leadership had to be accepted without complaint. A big mouth could significantly reduce the chances of an own enterprise. The Grootlandbouwbedrijf had its own machinery and operated a central workshop for repair and maintenance at Vollenhove. In 1949, it was relocated to Emmeloord.

upply of drain pipes by railway container. Inspection of the supplied pipes by officers of the Drainage Department, 1952.

Special planting plan

The Grootlandbouwbedrijf applied a particular planting plan to improve the structure of the soil and to keep out weeds. For example, clover was used because of its deep rooting which is beneficial for soil drainage. At the same time, the plant served as green fertilization. In addition, grains were included in the planting plan. This was mostly winter rye, winter wheat, oats and summer barley. Those crops also improve the soil structure and are less susceptible to weeds than, for example, potatoes and beets. Incidentally, winter rye was also used to prevent dispersion of the sandy soils. The land in the western part of the polder could not immediately be sown. Man-sized reeds had grown and that had to be removed first. Only after the thick reed roots had been removed, the seeds could be brought out. In the course of time, rapeseed became increasingly important because this crop suppresses weeds (including reeds). The harvest was stored in large barns on the dike at Vollenhove and Ramspol and at Marknesse. In 1948, the Central Storage was put into operation in Emmeloord and by and by, all storage-related activities were centralized here. From Emmeloord, the grain was transported further by ship.

 Grain dryer in the Central Storage, Emmeloord 1956.

Mechanical soil improvement

A lot of mechanical soil improvement was done in the Noordoostpolder. The land was levelled where necessary. In order to enhance dewatering and to stimulate the growth of the root system of crops, poorly permeable layers of soil were loosened with subsurface crushers in some places, to a depth of seventy to ninety centimetres. Drought-sensitive soil was mixed with clay-on-sand and sand-on-sand types with the help of ‘mengwoelers’ [special mixing plough]. By stirring through the depth of the sand, the roots were prevented from stopping their growth once they reached the clay or sand layer. Boulder clay areas received an infiltration method. By admitting water into the polder, the water level was raised locally.

"On foot from Ramspol to Schokland", 1941. Soon after the reclamation, the demolition of a number of Schokland buildings began. On the photo: a worker on his way from the ferry at Ramspol to the former island.

Not only agriculture

Although there was some awareness for the importance of nature and the cultural history of Schokland, agricultural interests dominated. Fortunately, in 1906, a law was implemented to protect archaeological objects. The Board of Directors contacted the archaeologist Professor Albert Egges van Giffen from Groningen. It was agreed that the Board of Directors would fund the archaeological (soil) research. Van Giffen`s assistant, PJM Modderman was sent to the new land on 15 July, 1941. Gerrit van der Heide had worked for van Giffen in the new polder since 1946. Under his leadership, the Schokker church was established as a museum in 1947. And at Ketelhaven, they later took care of the shipwrecks.

The cultivation of the drained soils in the Noordoostpolder was almost finished in 1957. After that, the last major release of enterprises took place. Today, agricultural land in the Noordoostpolder is among the most fertile and most expensive in the Netherlands. This is not only due to the favourable soil in this polder, but also to the measures taken by the Board in the 1940s and 1950s to improve the drainage and structure of that soil.