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South Dakota wooing European dairy farmers

State's selling pitch: Pastures are greener, cheaper in Midwest

Farmer Tom Whittaker of Tarporley, England, was considering a move to South Dakota, where he thought the pastures might be greener. But he was worried about volcanoes.

Though he has never been to the United States, the 43-year-old Whittaker had heard about a "super volcano" in Yellowstone National Park and wondered how far that is from South Dakota.

He also wanted to know more about the weather: "Do you get beaten to death by hailstones the size of tennis balls?"

Whittaker was one of about 60 curious farmers attending an American recruiting session in rural England, about two-and-a-half hours northwest of London near the Welsh border. South Dakota wants to ramp up its dairy industry but doesn't have the dairy farmers to do it.

A family-owned company based in Minnesota, Davisco Foods International, is building a big mozzarella factory in Lake Norden, S.D., population 432. It will need the milk of 65,000 cows, far more than South Dakota dairymen can supply. So the state has turned to Europe, where scarce land and regulatory hardships have yielded a lot of frustrated farmers.

The state has given the task of European recruitment to Joop Bollen, a 39-year-old Dutchman who moved to South Dakota 10 years ago with his American wife. For the past three years, he has taken his show on the road, from Canada to the Netherlands. So far, Bollen has persuaded 13 foreign families to relocate.

The state, which helps any new farmers apply for the low-interest loans they qualify to receive, figures it needs at least 150 more families to start dairies, so it recently dispatched Bollen from England.

There is a 200-year-old tradition of government and business promoters wooing Europeans to the Great Plains. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the land drew waves of immigrants from Britain, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Germany and Russia, luring them with promises of riches. Harsh weather and loneliness eventually drove many of the newcomers away.

Over the past 50 years, many farmers have also left the land because falling commodity prices and competition from large corporate operations made earning a living nearly impossible.

On a Thursday evening in a golf-club conference room in the village of Tarporley, Bollen delivered his gentle pitch to folks who think of South Dakota as Mount Rushmore, snow and wind-swept wilderness. Bollen made a point of saying he is talking about eastern South Dakota, the more densely populated portion of the state of 755,000.

"Here is an area that is interesting from a social perspective — where you will find people," he said.

Bollen described the initial adjustment process: "It's a honeymoon stage, and everything is 'South Dakota, fantastic.' Then you go through a stage where you just want to shoot everyone."

He acknowledged that winters get really cold but added that a dry, sunny cold isn't like Britain's damp winter. "It's actually quite nice," he said. The crowd scoffed. Bollen tried again: "The climate is very well-suited for cows."

The British farmers asked about the price of land. They wanted to know about job prospects for their wives and what happens at retirement. British dairy farmers are inclined to be skeptical, as they were hit hard at home by mad-cow disease and a devastating outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease in 2001.

One man asked bluntly, "How far are we going to be from so-called civilization?"

It was a good question. In the land that awaits the dairy farmers, the big sky stretches over flat terrain dotted with a few trees. New recruits would likely settle along Highway 29, which shoots north from the state's largest city, Sioux Falls (pop. 140,000), bisecting frozen fields of corn and soybeans. Red barns and sturdy houses appear every few miles. Locals tear around in snowmobiles on their days off. Or they go ice-fishing.

The isolation at first spooked Nicolien Hammink, a Dutchwoman who bought a farm outside Brookings, S.D., with her husband, Wim, seven years ago. The neighbors had ways she found odd at first. She was shocked when guests at her first dinner party arrived with food. Afterward, they packed up the leftovers and took them home.

"In Holland, you leave the food there," she said. "But their way isn't so bad. At least I don't have to wash the dishes."

South Dakota in other ways is a great place to have a dairy farm. Feed is cheap, manure is easy to dispose of, and no encroaching cities and suburbs drive up land prices. Also, there is local demand for milk, so a farmer can avoid big shipping costs. Some of today's new immigrants run large, profitable dairies.

But the social adjustments can be a killer. A young Dutch couple, Andre and Flor Meiers, moved to Bancroft, S.D., (population 20) two years ago and started a 200-cow dairy. Flor Meiers, who left behind a job and family in urban Holland, has struggled with homesickness.

"There are no stores, nothing at all," explained Andre Meiers. "For a woman, it is more difficult."

The Hamminks paid less than $1,000 an acre seven years ago when they bought the land for their 1,000-cow dairy. Land prices have since gone up to as much as $1,500 an acre, but that's still a lot cheaper than the $10,000 to $15,000 an acre land would cost them in the Netherlands.

Most important, there are no milk-production quotas in the U.S. The European Union and Canada both have quota systems requiring dairy farmers to buy a permit to produce a certain amount of milk each year at a set price. That can make it almost prohibitively expensive for farmers to expand output.

Free of such restraints, dairy farmers in the United States can more easily expand their herds and hire workers to do the milking, so farm owners can serve more as managers than as farmhands.

Before settling on South Dakota, Arjan Blok, a third-generation Dutch dairyman, shopped for a country without quotas. He now manages the Sherman Dairy in White, S.D., outfitted with computerized milking machines.

"I don't have to work nearly as hard as my father did," Blok said.