Discord on Dairies of Dutch Dreams

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 29, 2007

HUDSON, Mich. -- Peter van der Vegt knew he'd be "milking 70 cows for the rest of my life" if he continued to work at his family's dairy farm in the Netherlands, where milk production ceilings and land shortages add as much as $40,000 to the cost of a cow.

"I wanted a challenge; I wanted to live the American dream," van der Vegt said. So, in 1999, he moved to Angola, Ind., to run a 600-head dairy operation set up by Vreba-Hoff Dairy Development, a company run by six second-generation Dutch siblings from Michigan and three of their cousins in the Netherlands.

With Vreba-Hoff's help, almost 50 Dutch families have set up dairy farms in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio over the past decade. The company oversaw the design and construction of the dairy for van der Vegt and helped him obtain financing and immigration papers. Now van der Vegt, 42, is moving to a 3,500-cow operation near South Bend, Ind.

"They come here just so they can keep dairy farming, because they love it," said Cecilia Conway, who runs Vreba-Hoff's U.S. operations with her sister and four brothers. She said the dairies help stimulate stagnant rural economies.

But residents are not exactly rolling out the welcome mat.

The 6,000-cow operation Vreba-Hoff runs in south-central Michigan and many of its other dairies have clashed with state regulators and residents. People complain of an overpowering stench and environmental pollution from the "Dutch dairies," which generally house several thousand cows in what are known as concentrated animal feeding operations and produce hundreds of thousands of gallons of manure each day.

The first Vreba-Hoff dairy, near Hudson, Mich., opened in 1997. When a second facility opened nearby in 2000, residents formed a group called Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan to oppose the company.

Most of the farmers recruited by Vreba-Hoff had much smaller pasture-based operations in the Netherlands. Critics say they are ill-equipped to operate the "turnkey" dairies set up by Vreba-Hoff.

"These are huge, polluting facilities, and they have no experience running them," said Kathy Melmoth, 55, a registered nurse with a small farm in the area.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has been in a legal tug of war with Vreba-Hoff for several years, filing a lawsuit in 2003 that resulted in a 2004 consent decree in which the company agreed to build an on-site waste treatment facility. This year, the department asked a judge to hold the company in contempt of court for violating the decree, asserting that Vreba-Hoff was still failing to correctly dispose of manure. Robert McCann, a spokesman for the department, said it has had problems with other dairies set up by Vreba-Hoff.

Conway said many of the allegations of violations are exaggerated. She blames the problems on flawed waste-treatment machinery and heavy rainfall, which caused a manure backup last fall because it cannot be spread on fields during rain.

"We had some hiccups, we've admitted some mistakes, but we're moving forward," she said.

When the Vreba-Hoff cows leave their stalls to be milked three times a day, the manure blanketing the floor is vacuumed out and trucked to an on-site treatment plant and then to storage lagoons. The treated manure is used as fertilizer, sprayed over fields or injected into the soil.

Opponents say that when the dairy is spreading manure on the fields, they feel like prisoners in their homes. They complain of breathing problems, burning eyes, sore throats and nausea.

"You can't hang laundry; you have to close all the windows tight; you can't have picnics," said Lynn Henning, 49, a corn and soybean farmer who also works for the Sierra Club. Henning runs a water sampling program in the streams around the Vreba-Hoff dairy, where tests have shown elevated E. coli and low oxygen levels caused by algae blooms fed by nitrogen and phosphorus from manure and other farm waste.

Conway said the odor issue is subjective and noted that people who live next to the farm, including her sister and the owners of a bed-and-breakfast, have no complaints.

Meanwhile, the dairies have split the community. "There are conflicts that didn't exist before," said resident Janet Kauffman, 62, a professor at Eastern Michigan University. "There's this whole level of resentment and hostility that's new. I resent [other residents'] raising calves for Vreba-Hoff; and they resent us taking pictures of the operations. It's really sad when that happens in a small community."

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