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Dutch lessons

Photo / Ann Mullen
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Published 7/4/2001

Stephen Vander Hoff’s parents emigrated from the Netherlands to Michigan in 1960. Though his dad wanted to dairy farm in the states like he did in his homeland, he couldn’t come up with the cash. But his four sons and two daughters more than fulfilled his dream. The Vander Hoffs own three Michigan dairies. The largest one, which they jointly own with relatives in the Netherlands, is in Lenawee County. And they are building a fourth in Hillsdale County with 3,200 cows.

The Vander Hoffs also own Vreba-Hoff Dairy Development LLC, a consulting firm that helps immigrants from the Netherlands establish dairies in Michigan and Ohio.

Bill Weida, a Colorado University economics professor who studies the farm industry, says that Dutch dairy farmers come to Michigan and other states because of their lax laws. The Netherlands developed strict environmental regulations after years of dairy farming polluted the land, he says, explaining that nitrate contained in manure saturated the soil, making it difficult to grow crops.

Vander Hoff disagrees, saying that environmental restrictions have not drawn Dutch farmers to the states. He says high land costs and government limits on milk production have made it hard for Dutch farms to survive.

The 30-year-old farmer’s family got into the dairy business because they saw a potential to do well and because they like farming.

“You don’t do something seven days a week if you don’t love it,” he says.

Vander Hoff walks through the milk barn of the 2,800-cow dairy farm in Lenawee County. He says that it is nearly impossible to stay small and make a living dairy farming.

The farm has storage for 9 million gallons of waste in units under the barn and in a concrete-lined lagoon, which is about the size of a football field and reaches capacity in less than a year.

Vander Hoff is used to complaints about the odor.

“I can understand the complaints,” he says. “But we live in an agricultural community.”

Weida disagrees. He says that when dairies get too large they are no longer farms, but factories and should be regulated as such.

“The Netherlands is a laboratory we should pay attention to,” says Weida.

Read more about Ann Mullen's investigation in "The big stink" and "Hog hell."

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at amullen@metrotimes.com.

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