Dutch dairy sues neighbors

SALEM, Ohio – Seven months after Jan Van Ham’s neighbors sued him for the reported smell and bugs coming from his farm, he sued them for lying about his operation and targeting him because of his Dutch nationality.

Van Ham and his wife, Anja, filed a lawsuit June 1 in Putnam County Common Pleas Court against the county’s concerned citizens group and three of its members, Claud Kesler, Kathleen Burkhart and Bryan Wildermuth, all of Continental, Ohio.

The lawsuit alleges the concerned citizens group maliciously conspired and made false reports about the farm to government agencies and the media.

They reportedly did this to ruin the Van Hams’ 690-head dairy and “drive them out of the United States.”

Ruined reputations? The Van Hams are also suing for defamation, saying the defendants knowingly made false statements about the farm’s manure management practices, including an allegation of the Van Hams “purposely spraying manure on private property” to hurt the residents.

The lawsuit says the concerned citizens group was wrong in blaming the Van Hams for an “imagined” rodent problem, when bugs and wildlife are a natural part of living in the country.

The Van Hams also allege in the seven-page lawsuit that defendant Wildermuth came to their farm last May and “yelled and screamed” at the Van Ham family, including their daughter.

Wildermuth reportedly demanded the Van Hams return to The Netherlands, and said if they didn’t go, he would escort them there himself.

Wildermuth is a threat to their physical safety, the Van Hams allege. Their daughter, who is in college, has moved as a result, according to Van Ham’s attorney, Bob Karl.

Wildermuth did not return calls for comment, and Burkhart and Kesler declined to discuss the case.

Attorney John Sproat said he plans to “vigorously” defend his clients against the complaint.

“We’re preparing to respond and go to trial if needed,” he said.

The Van Hams are seeking at least $25,000 in damages.

More accusations. But this isn’t the Van Hams’ first run-in with their neighbors.

Last October, six neighboring families sued the Van Ham dairy for negligence, fumes, contamination, nuisance and emotional distress.

Each of the 17 plaintiffs, including Wildermuth and Kesler, is seeking at least $175,000 for alleged emotional distress and invasion of the quiet enjoyment of their property.

In addition, they are suing for reported medical expenses and loss of earnings.

In a court-filed response, the Van Hams denied their neighbors’ allegations and said they operated their farm in accordance with accepted agricultural practices.

The case is set for a jury trial March 21, 2005.

‘Just want to farm.’ Van Ham told Farm and Dairy he did not want to get involved in another lawsuit but doesn’t know another way to stop the arguing.

“We don’t want to be strangled up in lawsuits and dealing with attorneys,” he said. “We just want to farm here.”

The Van Hams moved to Ohio and began farming in 2001.

Because of expensive milk quotas and lack of land, the family could not afford to continue farming in The Netherlands.

The Van Hams looked at several locations before building a farm in Putnam County, with the help of Vreba-Hoff Dairy Development.

More cows, more issues. Adding to his neighbors’ hostility, Van Ham has the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s OK to expand to 2,250 cows.

Van Ham is still working on the first phase of the two-step process.

He started adding another manure lagoon but completion is stalled because of wet weather, he said.

After the manure storage, a stormwater pond and dry cow barn are complete, Ohio Department of Agriculture will inspect the farm and give the go-ahead for phase two, which includes building two freestall barns and stocking the cows.

Van Ham says he hopes to move in the additional cows next year.

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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