Dutch family discovers dairy future in Ohio

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ANTWERP, Ohio – Two long, parallel barns, the front encased in massive glass panes, don’t look like a home to hundreds of cows.

Yet, residents in northwestern Ohio are starting to equate these impressive structures with a dairy farm – more specifically, Dutch dairy farms.

Here in Paulding County, at the Zylstra farm, it is no different.

But the Zylstras’ archetypal barns characterize more than just a modern dairy. They illustrate the tale of a family and its ultimate gamble: selling its livelihood, pinning all its hopes on a land it knew little about and leaving friends and family for a new life.

The tale of the Zylstra family illustrates those of many Dutch families who have immigrated to the United States searching a future in dairy – a future that their native countries couldn’t provide.


Moving on

Leo Zylstra, his wife, Sjieuwka, and their three sons, Yme, Willem and Jan, spent a lifetime milking 70 cows and farming 65 acres in Friesland in northern Netherlands, battling strict milk quotas and exorbitant land prices.

With three grown sons interested in farming and the financial impossibility of expanding, Leo felt no choice but to look elsewhere.

The search started in Denmark, Germany and Canada before the Zylstras came across Ohio with the help of a Michigan-based dairy development company.

During visits to their soon-to-be new home, the Zylstras commented that they liked the flat, open land of northwest Ohio and the heavy clay soil, similar to what they had farmed all their lives.

With the life-altering decision behind them, barn construction began in November 1999 and soon they had more cows than they ever dreamed possible in their old home.


Bigger. Better?

With eight times as many cows as they had in The Netherlands, the Zylstras now only have twice as much land, a theme reverberated at many Dutch farms relocating in Ohio.

It’s easier this way for them. They can buy their feed and rent their land to a crop farmer.

Although long days in the field are now a thing of the past for the Zylstras, the family is satisfied concentrating on cattle.

“If I want to be in the field, I’ll just ask the crop farmer if I can drive his tractor or help with harvesting,” Yme laughed.

But here on the farm, a cow is more common than a tractor. With a modern double-16 parlor, the Zylstras now rely solely on their black and white “milking machines” for sustenance.


Then vs. now

Life on a dairy in the United States vs. The Netherlands has its differences – both the good and the bad.

A few years ago, when the Zylstras were still farming in their native country, they milked just twice a day in a double-five parlor – leaving more opportunities for one-on-one time with their cows.

Now, with a much bigger herd here in Antwerp, Ohio, and milking three times a day, the Zylstras rely partially on their eight Spanish-speaking employees.

“In The Netherlands, you do everything yourself. But here it’s bigger and you have to teach and trust your employees,” Willem stressed.


Quotas, milk prices

Other things also took getting used to.

Coming from a country where the dairy industry operates under a rigid quota system, the Zylstras now strive to understand the price fluctuations and supply and demand that runs the U.S. market.

The quota system is the main reason the family chose the United States rather than Canada. Quotas are what they wanted to avoid.

“Here, if you have money, you can buy a cow and then you can milk that cow,” Yme said.


Reality

But, at least to two of the Zylstra brothers, their milk-drenched dreams of capacity-filled barns haven’t turned into reality.

Permits are the problem. The Zylstras applied for a permit from Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to increase their herd beyond the 700-cow threshold.

Although the facility can handle 1,000 cows, the family is milking less than 600.

“It’s like Wal-Mart putting up a building and only using half the store, or a truck driver only hauling half a load. It’s just not cost efficient,” Willem said. “We’re losing money every day.”

Disenchantment is in their eyes and laces their Friesian-accented words. The family did not anticipate the permit process taking so long. Willem says had they known, they likely would have built in another country.


Ultimate dreams

Although getting the proper permits and increasing their herd is the immediate goal, it is not the ultimate one. After the current farm is at capacity, Yme wants his own similar-scale farm – a dream since he was 12.

But not all the brothers are sure if they fancy a dairy future.

Although Willem is dairy farming now, he went to college in Amsterdam for engineering. He’s also slowly working toward getting his private pilot license, in between the long hours of farming. With his many interests, Willem isn’t sure yet if he wants his own farm someday.

Jan, the youngest brother, is at Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technical Institute.


Pride

Although the family has established a farm that is larger than more than thousands of other Ohio farms, the brothers will not be proud of their accomplishments until they fill their barns and make a profit. They can’t tally their feats with so many of their self-imposed high standards still ahead of them, they said.

“If we were profitable, we’d be proud,” Willem said. “We need to work toward that.”

“First, we need to have more cows. That’s the challenge now. We need to run that parlor 24 hours a day.”


What’s not to love?

Although other Dutch dairies have succeeded in building a farm and are happy with their cows, social and community aspects are a whole other ballgame. But the Zylstras, who say they face little public scrutiny, are content and say they were well-received into their community.

A neighbor with 300-400 beef cattle already set the precedent of a large farm in the area, they said.

The family agrees that although they miss their sister who remained in the Netherlands, the United States has quickly become their home.

In fact, Yme, who lived more than 25 years in The Netherlands and just a few in the United States, says he likes it just as well here – and why shouldn’t he, he says, he has cows over here, too.

(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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