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There’s a world of interest in South Dakota’s dairies

Modified: Thursday, Oct 20th, 2011

Wim and Nicolien Hammink are seen at their dairy farm near Bruce. The Hamminks moved to South Dakota in 1995 from the Netherlands to start their dairy here. (Courtesy photo) / Cattle chow down Tuesday afternoon in a free-stall barn at Hilltop Dairy outside Elkton. Hilltop is owned by Netherlands natives Wilfried and Olga Reuvekamp, one of several international families who own dairies in southeast South Dakota.

• Many local dairies run by families from Europe

Back in the Netherlands, during the early '90s, Wim and Nicolien Hammink’s dairy farm had plateaud at about 50 cows. To grow would mean purchasing a higher quota, or the right to milk more cows, and more land. The higher quota would be expensive and land was scarce. Wim was the dairy’s only employee (Nicolien taught elementary school), and he wanted opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship rather than accomplishing only the daily routine of a dairy. And, the couple had three young sons to think about: Thijs, now 23, Tom, 21, and Wouter, 19.

"We could survive, I think, but for the boys there as no possibility to take over in the future," Nicolien said of the dairy.

Other local dairy owners tell similar stories: Many come from Europe, where a denser population and sometimes bureaucracy stifle farms that would expand.

“We wanted something more and some more challenge. Within the Netherlands, that wasn’t very easy to do. Because it’s such a densely populated country, so there’s a huge struggle for land,” said Olga Reuvekamp, owner with her husband, Wilfried, of Hilltop Dairy near Elkton.

“For farmers in general in the Netherlands, it is not always the perfect place for a farmer to be. It’s like farming in a big city. Public perception, of course, is very different if you would be in an urban area, public perception of agriculture.”

Sarah Sanders, owner with her husband, Glyn, of Cederberg Dairy in Ramona, said the same is true for Great Britain.

“My husband had been looking to sort of expand, and we needed to buy more land, which just wasn’t becoming available in England,” Sanders said.

For each of these families, and others, the answer was to create or purchase a dairy in South Dakota. The Hamminks came first, in 1995. They explored land in Texas, the east coast, Wisconsin and elsewhere, but found South Dakota to have the favorable conditions of lower feed prices and higher milk prices, plus friendly people. The Hamminks sold their quota in the Netherlands and had enough money to begin operations here in 1996 with 300 cows. They now have two farms – Hammink Dairy and Hammink South, both near Bruce – and 2,400 cows.

As Nicolien said many wives do, she became office manager for the dairy.

But in 2001, an opportunity presented itself for Nicolien to put her people skills to work. The South Dakota Department of Agriculture had begun to market its dairy industry abroad, and led tours through the state for interested foreign farmers or investors. On one such tour for people from the Netherlands, the tour scheduled a one-hour stop at the Hammink Dairy.

"We went through everything five years ago and we were very enthusiastic, so one hour turned into three hours," Nicolien said.

Things grew from there, until the Hamminks began their consulting and development business. They became the local contact for dairy farmers moving to the area, and have already worked with 16 families from places including the Netherlands, Ireland, Canada, England, Belgium and other parts of the U.S. Nicolien has translated from Dutch to English at banks and lawyer's offices, earned her Realtor’s license to help find families homes and property, and even helped a family to build a home here that would be ready when they came. Wim has helped build business plans and make projections for the dairies, and acted as general contractor when building dairies.

Helping others

The Sanders and Reuvekamps are among the families the Hamminks have helped to move here. Sarah and Glyn Sanders – with their children – Theo, 10, and Jemimah, 9 – purchased an old dairy that had not been used as a dairy for some time. They opened it as Cederberg Dairy in 2004, with about 450 cows. They have added a few barns and now have 700 cows.

After attending a S.D. Department of Agriculture presentation near their home in England, the Sanders chose South Dakota for many of the same reasons anyone chooses to live here.

“We liked the big open spaces and we liked the low crime rate; we saw that everybody was really friendly," Sarah said. "We thought South Dakota was a nice place to bring up a family. We’d been to other parts of America before and hadn’t been interested in moving to America, but we thought South Dakota was very different from the more populated parts of America."

“We’re glad we’ve made the move, we’re happy here. We still miss some parts of England, but we don’t have any desire to go back,” she said.

When Wilfried and Olga Reuvekamp moved to South Dakota in 2006, it was also with help from the Hamminks, whom they heard of by word of mouth in the Netherlands. They purchased an existing dairy, Hilltop Dairy near Elkton, trading their 170-cow operation in the Netherlands for a 1,400-cow operation here (which has since grown to about 2,000 cows). Their children, daughter Elf and sons Thijs and Wim, were 8, 6 and 4 at the time of the move.

"We looked at the world map and thought the Midwest of America was probably a very good place to be a farmer, and more agriculture oriented, which is very pleasant for a farmer,” Olga said. “This is the perfect place to be on earth, for a farmer. It is.”

Olga, who also was a schoolteacher in the Netherlands, has acted as full-time office manager for Hilltop since the family arrived five years ago. Now, Hilltop has hired a full-time secretary and she may look for a job in education again.

Why so big?

Though their farms have grown here, these dairy owners said their families have been in the dairy industry for generations. Like other parts of agriculture, dairy farms continue to grow in size so they can be efficient and afford the high-tech equipment needed to keep up with today's industry.

“I think what we have in common, just like the American farmers, is that we’re all very passionate and that farm is our life," Olga said. "I think some people are not very aware of it and they think we just want big, bigger, biggest. Not at all, we’re still very much a farm family.”

Local dairies owned by international families have also contributed to the local economy, Nicolien said. The Hamminks employ 30 people, all of whom live here, shop here and otherwise get involved in the community. Dairy farms add 887 employees and over $849,000 in indirect business taxes to South Dakota each year, according to a report by Gary Taylor, associate professor of economics for SDSU. The additional output makes the total impact of the dairy industry nearly $1.3 billion per year on the South Dakota economy. During the third quarter of 2009, 95,000 dairy cows produced 481 million pounds of milk in South Dakota.

More dairies to come?

Right now, local dairy farmers are recovering from the major hurdles they hit in 2009, when milk prices bottomed out. While the price of milk has risen, feed prices are now high, and the recovery is slow. These local dairy owners said they don't believe anyone will be starting up a new dairy here soon.

Alvaro Garcia, professor of dairy science and Extension educator for SDSU, is a resource for local dairy owners. He helps them learn how to train employees to produce the best product, and sometimes translates important information into Spanish to help dairy owners fully communicate with their Spanish-speaking employees. (While the dairies employ local people and people from various countries, many of their workers are from Spanish-speaking countries, they said. These workers are the only ones who will fill certain jobs, and often they come for a year to make money for their families, then return to their home countries.)

Garcia agreed that interest in starting up dairies has slowed down in the last few years. But he believes that, if it picks up again anywhere, it will be in South Dakota.

“I think it will pick up, because if there are dairies that want to get into business, I think our state offers great advantages to do so," Garcia said. "The fact that it is a little quiet right now, I think it’s country-wide. If it’s going to pick up, I think it will pick up in this area."

Contact Charis Ubben at cubben@-brookingsregister.com

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