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South Dakota Wants More Dairy Cows, Lots of Them - 2003-05-17

A "wanted" poster is circulating across Canada and Europe, but not for criminals. South Dakota is putting the call out for cows, 65,000 of the creatures, to be exact, and dozens of farmers to care for them. A new mozzarella cheese factory in Lake Norden needs the cows to maintain a steady supply of milk for the plant, but there aren't enough of them in the immediate area. So development officials are banking on the state's Old West charms and modern business-incentives to lure foreign dairy farmers to the prairie.

Inside the Hammink Dairy facility, workers are attaching cows to computer-controlled milking machines and hosing out manure and mud from holding pens. Forty-eight-year-old Wim Hammink walks over to an assistant who's preparing a Holstein cow for surgery. "This cow didn't feel so good, so she probably didn't eat enough, and then sometimes when that happens, their stomach fills up with air or gas and it starts floating. It's not sitting in the right spot," he says. "So he is going to put it back down where it is supposed to be."

Mr. Hammink's responsibilities here are greater than what he had in the Netherlands. Before moving to South Dakota in 1995, he ran a small family dairy but grew tired of overcrowding, and European farm quotas. "You're not supposed to produce more than what you have permits for. Within that system, you try to produce as low cost as possible. So if a cow produce more milk, doesn't necessarily mean you make more money," he says.

With 1,000 cows on his 32-hectare dairy farm, Mr. Hammink will produce 9 million kilograms of milk this year, a more generous amount than he was allowed in the Netherlands. He employs 13 workers and says he loves South Dakota's wide-open prairie and friendly residents.

State officials see Wim Hammink as a successful foreign farmer and they want more just like him. With fewer young people taking over their family farms, developments like the nearby 40-million-dollar cheese factory are strapped for resources. Factory officials don't expect to have any problems hiring 750 workers to staff the plant, but they say they need 65-thousand dairy cows to support the operation… and there aren't enough farms close by.

With that much at stake, Joop Bollen, director of the South Dakota International Business Institute, has pitched the state to dairy farmers in Europe and Canada. He says the state's competitive milk market and lack of quotas are key selling points. "South Dakota has some of the lowest costs of production in the nation," he says. "And on top of that, South Dakota does not levy any state income or state corporate taxes, so you get to keep more profit you generate."

In three years, Mr. Bollen has convinced thirteen British, Dutch, Belgian, and Canadian dairy farmers to relocate here. He estimates he needs another 130 or so to supply the cheese factory.

The initiative has its critics. The average dairy herd here is 95 cows. Many new farms could have up to ten times that number, and rural advocacy groups fear odor and pollution problems could spike with 65,000 cows concentrated in the region.

And 72-year-old Bob Ode, a local dairy farmer and former member of the National Milk Board, says the country's milk production already outpaces consumption. And he expresses concern that although this new factory will help the farmers in the communities around it, the enterprise will do nothing for dairymen elsewhere except saturate a market that is already overcrowded. "With the price structure we have now, there's no way that you can call it a profitable industry," he says. "When they're trying to develop programs to cut back on production, but yet they're encouraging doubling the size of the herd in South Dakota."

But those problems don't discourage British dairy farmers James Ailsby and Julie Scanlon. Here at a State University dairy lot in Brookings, the couple examines a herd of Jersey cows they're thinking of purchasing. They've sold everything they own to be here. Mr. Ailsby says their neighbors don't blame them for moving, given the weak dairy industry and the Mad Cow and Hoof and Mouth Disease outbreaks of 2001, which crippled British agriculture. "In the area where we farmed, it wasn't not quite as bad as perhaps farther north in the UK, but that perhaps made a lot of people assess their futures in the industry, and a lot left the industry after they received compensation for their animals that were killed. Certainly that with other livestock health issues in UK made others reassess their futures," he says.

And Ms. Scanlon says South Dakota officials have made sure they realize that this venture isn't without its own risks. "But the opportunity's here for a long term future. Probably had 400 to 500 farmers contact us to speak through opportunities here with us. So hopefully we'll see more Brits moving over here, completely invaded," she says.

Ms. Scanlon and Mr. Ailsby say they'll head back to England, apply for visas, and start stocking up on teabags and scones.