Range revival - South Dakota, other states recruit dairy farmers from Europe

By SHARON COHEN Associated Press


BROOKINGS, S.D. - It looked like an Old West poster, a few hundred words promising a new life in America, tucked among news about cattle and sheep.

"WANTED - Dairy Farmers!!!" said the ad, offering cheap land and grand opportunities for those who dare to become settlers in a new venture on foreign soil.

The place: South Dakota. The time: now.

When Julie Scanlon and her partner, James Ailsby, first spotted the ad last fall in a British farm publication, they already had decided to sell their dairy in northwest England - it had become too much of a financial drain.

They were considering farming in France. Or maybe eastern Europe.

But the ad in "Farmers Weekly" offered a third choice: the wide-open plains of America, the same land that had lured hardy Europeans in the 19th century.

Sitting in the kitchen of their red-brick Victorian farmhouse, nestled among lush pastures and sturdy oak trees, the British couple mulled the offer. First, they were skeptical. Then, intrigued.

Dairy farmer Arjan Blok in White, S.D., ... was recruited by the state to move from Holland to South Dakota to open his farm.

This spring, after selling their beloved cows - Scanlon cried for months afterward - they came here for a look, tooling about two-lane blacktops, scouting out fields of green, chatting with farmers.

By summer, they had decided.

Come September, they'll bid farewell to their families, leave the picture-postcard village of Edale and travel 4,000 miles to the wind-swept prairie of South Dakota - joining a tiny but growing number of Europeans becoming dairy farmers in America.

They'll plunge into a world of high risk and hard work - a combination that has forced thousands to flee the dairy business, but one that does not discourage them.

"Nobody here says the roads are paved with gold or the sun shines all day," Ailsby says. "But the opportunities are here. We're glass-half-full rather than half-empty people. That's the kind of makeup you need to consider doing this."

Joop Bollen is looking for a few good farmers.

A decade ago, the Dutch-born Bollen was looking for a map to figure out where South Dakota was after being transferred here from Chicago to work as a grain trader.

These days, he's South Dakota's international recruiter, a trilingual ambassador who jets to trade shows and conferences in the Netherlands, England, Ireland and Canada, selling his state as the ideal place for dairy farming.

Bollen's pitch is simple: The regulations are reasonable, the land plentiful, the business - if all goes well - profitable.

A large dairy farm, he says, can produce a six-figure income.

Many people Bollen meets have seen the "wanted" ads he places in European farm publications designed to look like those that brought homesteaders here in the latter 1800s - including Laura Ingalls Wilder of "Little House on the Prairie" fame.

Ailsby and Scanlon were respected farmers in England - their 50-head herd was one of the top-milk producers in the country - but they say low prices and new rules imposed after the mad cow scare took a toll.

"It's a bit sad you can't make a living in the country ... you're brought up in, the place where you got your education," Scanlon says. "But it's very much a business decision."

The couple is among about 15 families from Belgium, England, the Netherlands and Canada recruited by Bollen - a number made more significant considering it translates into a $20 million-plus investment.

It takes moxie and money to make the trans-Atlantic move: Bollen estimates it costs each family at least $1 million to start from scratch, much less to buy an older place.

"The best people are the ones who are skeptical," he says. "We don't want them to romanticize this. It's a serious step."

For Bollen, the recruitment is about much more than producing milk for cheese plants: He's convinced his efforts can help revive shrinking rural towns.

"The farmers get to sell their grain, the schools will get more kids, the local grocery store, the vet, the bookkeeper get business," Bollen explains. "It's one of the few chances these small communities have."

The idea had dawned on others, as well.

Iowa State University is helping two towns and one county who are working with a Dutch company to pave the way for farm families migrating from the Netherlands. And many states - including Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan and Texas - have a smattering of recent foreign-transplant farmers.

The laws remain a hurdle - 30 states have some restrictions on foreign ownership of land, says Neil Harl, an Iowa State professor and agricultural economist.

Harl also says some fear dairy farms are just the beginning and once foreigners "get a toehold ... it's hard to tell what they might end up owning."

The laws are fairly relaxed in South Dakota, Bollen says, and foreigners who settle here permanently can own unlimited land.

Bollen says it's far easier to promote farming than it is to entice foreign manufacturers, though he does encounter the occasional quirky question.

"There are people who ask if we have earthquakes or if the Indians are still hostile," he says.

Those who come research everything thoroughly, from the schools to weather patterns for 20 years.

That's what Arjan Blok, a 30-year-old Dutchman, did before arriving last year.

Like many land-squeezed Europeans, he's happy his neighbors are more than shouting distance away. He smiles when he describes a visit by his 83-year-old grandfather, Jan.

The elderly man dreamily scanned the big sky, savored the silence and, he says, told him: "If I was young and I saw all this space, I would have done it, too."

South Dakota is nearly five times the size of the Netherlands but has less than

5 percent of the population - with an average one person per 10 square miles.

An acre of farmland in the eastern part of the state - where Bollen relocates people - goes for $1,000-$1,500. In Holland or Belgium, it could be $15,000-$18,000.

And, Bollen says, the cost of living is low, the price of feed is cheap, there's no personal income tax and most importantly, there's no quota system as there is in European countries, dictating how much milk farmers can sell.

It's an appealing package, but not always a convincing one around here.

"I don't think any of these people should assume it's easier to make a living here," says Dennis Wiese, president of the South Dakota Farmers Union. "Without government subsidies, people don't make any money."

Wiese says low milk prices and high property taxes in South Dakota have contributed to a mass exodus: A survey found nearly two-thirds of dairy farms in the state have disappeared in the last decade - compared with a nationwide decline of more than 40 percent.

So while Europeans complain about quotas, Wiese says, at least they guarantee a price.

Soon, James Ailsby and Julie Scanlon will pack their "Butterscotch Holstein" sign and head west.

They're not worried about the slow pace or loss of a social life: Scanlon has relatives in the United States and Ailsby jokes he'll be fine - he can buy Guinness here.

They don't compare themselves to the pioneers of long ago - "It's an insult to their memory," Scanlon says - but their impressions of America echo of the past.

"It's still a land of opportunity," Ailsby says. "If we work hard and manage well, we'll have a chance to make a decent living."


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