- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003


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 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 because 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. They were skeptical at first, but then intrigued.

This spring, after selling their beloved cows — Miss 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 will 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 will plunge into a world of high risk and hard work — a combination that has forced thousands of others to flee the dairy business.

Joop Bollen is looking for a few good farmers.

A decade ago, the Dutch native 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 is 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.

Mr. Bollen’s pitch is simple: The regulations are reasonable, the land plentiful and the business — if all goes well — profitable.

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

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

That parallel wasn’t lost on a British journalist who chose to interview Mr. Ailsby and Miss Scanlon at the nearby Wilder home turned museum — then filmed part of his story in front of a covered wagon.

“Good luck, pioneers,” he said cheekily, as he left them days later.

Mr. Ailsby, in his Bart Simpson T-shirt, smiled good-naturedly.

He and Miss Scanlon were respected farmers in England — their 50-head herd was one of the top milk producers in the country — but they said low prices and 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,” Miss Scanlon says. “But it’s very much a business decision.”

Mr. Bollen has recruited more than a dozen other families from Belgium, England, the Netherlands and Canada, translating into a $20 million-plus investment.

It takes moxie and money to make the trans-Atlantic move. Mr. 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. You’re pulling out your roots completely and replanting them someplace else.”

Wim Hammink, a transplanted Dutch dairy farmer, walked away from a 400-year family tradition when he settled here.

“You’ve got to be a little bit of the pioneer, really,” he says. “There’s something you’ve got to have in your genes or blood.”

Even then, it’s risky.

“You’re not reinventing the wheel,” he says, “but adjusting it all the time.”

For Mr. Bollen, the recruitment is about much more than producing milk for cheese plants. He is 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,” Mr. Bollen says. “It’s one of the few chances these small communities have.”

Many states — including Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan and Texas — have a smattering of foreign-transplant farmers, though precise numbers are hard to come by.

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

Though many American businesses are foreign-owned, Mr. Harl says, some people think land is different. “It’s sacred,” he says. “It means you’re giving up part of your national identity.”

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

Mr. Bollen says it is 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 the last 20 years.

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

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

The elder man dreamily scanned the big sky, savored the silence and 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 fewer 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 Mr. Bollen relocates people — goes for $1,000 to $1,500. In the Netherlands or Belgium, it could be $15,000 to $18,000.

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

Mr. Bollen even finds a silver lining in those teeth-chattering, blizzard-prone winters.

“South Dakota has a good climate — from a cow’s perspective,” he says, pulling out a report that says cold is less stressful to the animals than heat.

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