Van Hams face controversy but plan expansion

CONTINENTAL, Ohio – An Environmental Protection Agency inspector shuffled down the hallway from the freestall barn to the parlor, clutching a clipboard and scribbling notes.

He visited the dairy to give recommendations on issuing permits for an expansion.

He paused and, enunciating carefully, asked Jan Van Ham what those two huge, round, metal things were in the next room.

Bulk tanks, Van Ham replied in near-perfect English.

It was a simple misunderstanding from a person who recognized little or nothing about dairies, but a typical one the Van Ham family has slowly grown accustomed to since immigrating to northwestern Ohio’s Putnam County from The Netherlands.

Since settling in the area, the family has encountered both resistance and welcoming arms from the community.


Hear me out

Jan Van Ham keeps the letters he’s received since he started building the operation in April 2001.

That summer, neighbors reported the farm’s odor to the county health board. Inspection found the odor was coming from a nearby waste plant, not the farm.

In another instance, a waitress who lived nearby said she knew the Van Hams had their cows because she could smell them. It turned out the barn was empty, still awaiting the cows’ delivery.

One letter explained the heat coming off the cattle and buildings would create perfect conditions to spawn tornadoes. The farm, the writer said, would turn into a tornado magnet.

Forty-seven-year-old Van Ham laughs, but the arguments make his wife, Anja, feel like they aren’t wanted, he said.

“These things they say are the most stupid things we’ve heard,” he said. “It’s hard.”

Van Ham is confident resistance will subside once his neighbors realize his farm is only the first of what is to come for Ohio agriculture: large scale farming.

“I have to compete with the one who can make milk cheapest, and the way to do that is more cows,” he said.

“[Consumers] always reach for the cheapest milk in the supermarket, even when they are complaining about my farm.”

He’s quick to add that his style of production, though large, is still a family farm.


In the family

Van Ham grew up on a family dairy in the southern part of The Netherlands near the Belgium border.

At 12, he was in the parlor twice a day and, by 20, he knew milking cows was his destiny.

Until three years ago, he’d built a herd of 100 Holsteins with a rolling herd average of 28,000 pounds.

Life was good and the operation still profitable, but Van Ham had other worries. His daughters, Neeltja, now 22, and Aukja, 19, and son, Mark, 16, didn’t have much of a future in the dairy business.

Their crop acreage and herd couldn’t possibly support them all. The country’s milk order limited milk production, and there was no room to expand. Dairying wasn’t fun anymore.

In The Netherlands, producers have to purchase the right to milk cows; an order for about 22,000 pounds of milk costs $20,000, Van Ham estimated.

“There was hardly no opportunities left in the dairy business,” Van Ham said, adding costs topped $50,000 to add one cow to the herd. For him, it was a struggle to maintain 100 cows.

So they looked elsewhere. Poland and Germany were first on the list, but proved fruitless.


A new home

Just five months after the family decided to look for another place to farm and several tours of farms in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, they’d selected their current farm southwest of Continental.

The flat, open space reminded them of their homeland more than 1,000 miles away.

“When we saw it, we knew. We said, ‘This is it, this is what we want,’” he said.

Vreba-Hoff Dairy Development helped handle paperwork and construction of the facility, complete with the company’s signature-style glass-fronted barn.

Van Ham, who learned basic English in school, also relied heavily on Vreba-Hoff employees to decipher bank notes and contracts.

Van Ham bought 300 heifers from Quebec and two herds from New York before the family milked its first cow in the States Oct. 4, 2001.

They currently milk 690 cows three times a day.

The exponential growth of his herd leaves even Van Ham feeling exhausted.

“You can’t imagine it if you don’t see it,” Van Ham said of the typical Dutch start-up in Ohio. “We don’t have farms like this in The Netherlands.”


What it takes

The family is working on another permit to allow them to expand to 2,200 cows, but plans to go step by step.

First on the list is a cement manure pit that would quadruple capacity, a move Van Ham has prioritized after two manure spills.

The first was in May 2002 when manure washed into a drain by heavy rain. The second was in March 2003 when snow melt caused manure to run off into ditches because it could not soak into frozen ground.

Van Ham isn’t proud of those mistakes, he said, but still thinks he’s got plenty of moxie.

“I’ve got that feeling, that drive. Work has made the U.S. what it is. People coming here have made something out of their lives,” he said.


Keeping afloat

Van Ham isn’t immune to the forces that are pushing other Ohio dairies under and cringes when he hears arguments that his farm is crowding the market.

“You can’t let the prices get away with you. I focus on what I can control,” he said, citing the production, herd health, breeding and quality feed rations as key points of interest.

Van Ham has daily interaction with his herd, personally checking the health of each cow. Anja is in charge of all calves. Herdsman Rinke Oenema and Hispanic laborers make the milk flow smoothly.

Oenema, who’s been with the Van Hams since they started milking, has been building his own dairy in Ohio and will soon leave his current job, Van Ham said with regret.

Eight other employees have made the farm their second home, checking cows, feeding and milking.

Though his employees are keen to their duties, Van Ham had originally planned on hiring local laborers.

When farm construction began, several passers-by stopped and asked about getting a job in the parlor. Van Ham took down names and called them to report to work.

Their first day on the job, not a single one showed up, he said. He’s not sure if it was the type of work or the controversy surrounding the farm that kept them away.


Benefits

Others aren’t so scared of the farm and watch as the start-up is filling their pockets.

Van Ham has hired the previous owner of the parcel where the farm now sits to grow and harvest crops. The arrangement also gives him land to spread manure.

“He can provide good quality feed, and I give manure for fertilizer,” he said.

Others are picking up the slack as heifer-raisers and custom planters and harvesters.

Aside from the farming advantages, Van Ham likes to point out the positives his family has brought to the community of Continental, population 1,200.

Van Ham recounted one of the first days after his family joined him in their new home: A trip to town left his pockets $50,000 lighter after a washer and dryer, refrigerator, furniture and other necessities were bought.

The family has also purchased cars and new farm machinery from local dealers.

“I see that as putting money here, for these people,” he said.


Likes it here

“I can’t think of any family who’d say they would never pick this place” to relocate, Van Ham said, showing pride in both his family and new home.

Daughter Neeltja, a pre-med major at Bowling Green State University, has been accepted to medical school in Toledo, and homesick Aukja returned to The Netherlands.

The youngest Van Ham, Mark, plays soccer and is involved in the community and school, offering the family a chance to interact with their neighbors.

For the Van Hams, Continental is home.

“For us, this is our home. We came here to set up and start a new life, and that’s what I know for sure,” he said.

(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

About the Author

Former staff reporter Andrea Zippay wrote for Farm and Dairy from 2001 to 2009. More Stories by Andrea Zippay

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