TCS Daily

Got Milk Cows?

By Michael Standaert - June 23, 2003 12:00 AM

With an aging population watching the corn grow and a mass exodus of youth seeking more exciting if not greener pastures, the American state of Iowa is looking across the Atlantic for new citizens. But unlike its previous (and not so successful) fling with Slobodan Milosevic's Yugo project, this time Iowa has found a much more promising source of potential immigrant productivity: Dutch dairy farmers hoping to escape overpopulation and over-regulation.

Three Iowa counties are mounting an all-out effort to woo Dutch farmers. It's not such a crazy idea when you think about it. For one thing, Iowa is similar in landscape to the Netherlands. Where the Dutch topography resembles a tightly made bed, Iowa's gently rolling landscape would be that same bed a bit rumpled. Iowa is also already home to a lot of Hollanders -- even though that immigration wave came back in the late 1800s, when many still wore wooden shoes and those large white windmill hats. A lot has changed in the Netherlands since that time, even if sometimes it feels like they haven't changed much in Iowa.

One thing that has changed in both regions is the dairy industry. Iowa's has become, like its population, increasingly sparse, while in the Netherlands the opposite has occurred: too many people and too many dairy farmers. There are nearly 1,000 people per square mile in the Netherlands. In Iowa there are 50. Dutch dairy farmers -- also burdened by strict government regulations on land use -- are looking for alternatives, and Iowa's Butler, Mitchell, and Poweshiek counties are looking to take advantage. Along with two advocacy groups, Iowa Extension and the Dutch National Extension, the counties are trying to facilitate a wave of agricultural emigration under the Iowa New Farm Family Project.

The Dutch National Extension Service estimates around 7,000 farmers will resettle in the US over the next decade. Iowa wants and needs many of them. Butler County, for example, had 176 farms with dairy operations in 1982. Fifteen years later that number was down to 44. The three counties, with their fertile land and shrinking populations, make an ideal port of entry for the Dutch. And they need somewhere to go. Peter Blauw, whose Atlantic Business Development Co. helps Dutch farmers relocate, estimates that there are almost twice as many dairy farmers in Holland as that country actually needs. "There is a lot of tension between the land-use needs and agriculture in the Netherlands," adds Paul Brown of the Iowa Extension. "There are inherent issues that they have which lead to greater regulation and environmental standards. Mainly, since much of the country is below sea-level, and the population is so dense, the environmental constraints hamper growth or expansion of existing farms."

Around 250 possible emigrants have been identified and, in early June, three Dutch dairy farming couples were among a group hosted by the Iowa Extension Office on a 1,000-mile tour of Iowa. One couple on the tour, Gert and Gea TenHave, sold their farm in Holland eight months ago and have since visited Texas, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio seeking a new dairy operation. Soon they will make a decision about which state to move to and begin the process of applying for immigration approval.

"We have not decided yet," Gert TenHave said from his home near Arnhem. "The people were very friendly in Iowa and the weather was not as hot as it was in Texas. Texas was very, very hot."

On their farm in the Netherlands, the TenHaves had room only for around 50 cows. If they moved to one of the counties in Iowa, they could boost that number to around 200. Environmental regulations in the Netherlands limit herds to one cow per every six-tenths of an acre, and land costs somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 per acre. "There are too many rules in the Netherlands," Gert TenHave said. "They want to build homes and roads and there is not enough room for diary farmers. Iowa is three to four times bigger than the Netherlands, and only a fraction of the people, there is much more space, and not so many rules. Here we have milk quotas. Ours was 265 kilos per year. There are just too many rules."

It costs around $2 million for a family to start a 200-cow dairy farm in one of the counties searching for new residents. But the counties offer a built-in dairy infrastructure and easy access to good markets that are currently being underserved.

Sounds like good business -- a no-brainer. But, as usual, the main hurdle for these farmers is bureaucracy. Iowa does not allow non-resident aliens to own farms, so families would have to move through the long and complicated process of immigration and naturalization. "We'll have to see what we come up against," Brown says. "The initial few families will be test cases to see how the process moves, and then we can go on from there."

Could the EU and the US resolve their farm subsidy fights -- embodied in the subsidy policies of the EU Common Agricultural Policy and the US Farm Bill -- by facilitating the free movement of farmers to where they would be most productive? A first step could be free market immigration agreements for agricultural workers between the economic blocs, and groups like Iowa Extension and the Dutch National Extension are already attempting to do this at a grass-roots level.

More tours of Iowa for Dutch dairy farmers are planned for the autumn and spring, and Iowa Extension representatives traveled to Holland last fall and winter for several recruitment fairs. Maybe shops in Des Moines should start stocking wooden clogs.

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