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Europeans see promising land


IRISHTOWN, Prince Edward Island - Peter Lauwerijssen, 31, and his younger brother, John, muscled a wayward Holstein into position in the state-of-the-art milking parlor. The grunts of beast and men seemed incongruous among the high-tech fixtures of the huge new barn, but no amount of digital displays and stainless steel will ever remove the sweat entirely from farming.

"See how we've taken to our new culture?" Peter boomed. "We swear at her in English as well as Dutch. But cows are very international - they will ignore you in every language."

Frustrated at rising land prices at home and pervasive European regulation, increasing numbers of farmers from northern Europe, like the Lauwerijssens, have sought greener pastures in Canada and the United States. The new wave of agricultural immigration has been barely noticed on this side of the Atlantic, but is causing alarm in Europe.

The significance of the exodus is not just that farmers are quitting Europe but that they see North America as still a boundless field of plenty. That's a sharp contrast to the pessimism of many farmers in North America, who are struggling through what some agricultural experts call the worst farm crisis since the Great Depression. Plummeting wheat prices and other woes have sown panic in the grain belt, and many farms and ranches in the American Midwest and the Canadian prairie provinces are on the edge of ruin.

The European newcomers are acutely aware of the economic risks. But they are confident that the New World remains a promised land for farmers.

Eight years ago, the Lauwerijssen clan - Peter, his brother and their parents, Piet and Mary - came to a tough realization, one being made by thousands of other farmers in Europe's richest countries these days.

Their Dutch dairy operation, though prosperous enough, held no real prospect for expansion. Land was too expensive, the countryside too crowded, and the agricultural restrictions of the European Union too stringent.

"Day to day, we were doing OK. But there was no future," Peter recalled. "We looked hard at the realities. And then we looked hard across the ocean. There we could see opportunities like ripe apples on a tree."

So the old farmstead was sold, and every guilder, roughly $4 million, reinvested in 450 red-soil acres, farm buildings and machinery on this Canadian island. Now the tricolor flag of the Netherlands floats from the beams above the stalls and stanchions of the gigantic metal barn, a reminder of the old country abandoned for the new.

The exodus has produced handwringing headlines back home, exemplified by the farm sale earlier this year by one of Holland's foremost skating champions, Evert Van Benthem, who then took up a John Deere tractor in Alberta.

"So many farmers are discouraged and deciding to leave," said Henk Letschert, an official of the Dutch Farmers Union. "Farming is still a good business in Holland. But we are feeling the loss."

"The bad years might be worse than we experience in Europe, but we believe the good years will be much, much better," said Jose Van Wezel, 31, who, with her husband, Jeroen, has invested more than $2 million in a farm in northern Ohio. The couple and their two children emigrated from Holland in February. "Farming is always about cycles.

"We looked closely at other places in Europe, at France and even east Germany, but finally decided it should be Canada or the U.S.," she said.

"Here you can you can still dream the big dreams."

Exact numbers of agricultural immigrants from Western Europe are hard to pin down because crop growers, dairymen and livestock raisers are admitted to the United States and Canada under a variety of classifications, often as business entrepreneurs or technicians. But from a trickle at the outset of the 1990s, the ranks of arriving farmers have swollen to many hundreds every year, perhaps thousands, according to agricultural officials in Canada and the United States.

"The numbers are definitely growing. Just in Ontario we've seen hundreds of newcomers from Holland alone," said Ernie Hardeman, Ontario's agriculture minister. "To them, the future of farming seems brighter in North America. ... [It's] a vote of confidence in our agricultural economy."

Most of the new agricultural immigrants are from Britain and Holland, countries where shortages of agricultural land are becoming most critical and whose independent-minded farmers are rankled by the omnipresence of the new Eurocracy. Others are also coming from Denmark, Ireland, Switzerland, and, to lesser extent, Germany and Belgium.

Soaring European land costs tend to be the prime motivator. But the farmers also complain bitterly about the regimen of tight new environmental controls and agricultural regulations that have come with the European Union.

"It's getting so you fill out three forms every time a cow burps," said Roger Haynes, who with his wife, Marie, sold their farm near Stratford-on-Avon, England, in 1997 and purchased 460 acres near Neepawa, Manitoba.

"Farming is a tough business anywhere you live, but the pressures on land use in Europe are unbelievable," Haynes said. "Britain is headed for serious agricultural decline."

Haynes is converting the grain farm to a beef cow operation, but will also cultivate mixed crops. Before picking Canada, he weighed Australia and southern Africa, then made seven visits to North America before making the life-changing leap. It's been a hard go, but no complaints.

The Lauwerijssen family on Prince Edward Island has taken some brutal licks. Last year, a fire destroyed the cow barn, killing the entire dairy herd. Their response was to go to the bank and borrow money to build the biggest, most modern barn in Maritime Canada. Finished in April, it is already a landmark.

"In five years, I expect to double the size of my herd," Peter Lauwerijssen said confidently. "My brother and I don't want to 'survive' as farmers. We want to be making damn good profits."

A recent survey in the Netherlands found that a quarter of the country's 100,000 farmers have considered moving their operations abroad and that 10 percent are actively pursuing possibilities. The small country - 15 million people on a land about the size of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined - has a proud agricultural tradition. But with 15 million pigs, 4.5 million cows and 100 million chickens, not to mention all those tulips, all living alongside some of Europe's fastest-growing cities and suburbs, things are getting crowded.

Pollution from manure has roused the wrath of European Union regulators and the Dutch public, causing the Ministry of Agriculture to order pig herds to be cut by 25 percent. Meanwhile, the average cost of agricultural land shot up 19 percent last year.

Much the same is occurring in Britain, which has suffered the added whammy of "mad cow" disease, which resulted in worldwide bans on British meat. Farmers there are also embroiled in bitter disputes over run-off, public access to farmland and other controversies. Resentment against the European Union also burns fiercest in Britain.

"The onslaught of new regulations is proving the final straw for many," said Maurice C. Torr, a transplanted Briton who specializes as an agricultural real estate broker in Brandon, Manitoba.

Over the past decade, Torr reckons, he's helped more than 100 British and Irish farm families relocate to the fertile farm region of southeast Manitoba.

"We're not talking about 'hobby farmers' amusing themselves with a rural lifestyle. Nor are we talking about peasants come to eke out a living," he said. "We are talking about bright, aggressive, extremely modern farmers investing hundreds of millions of dollars to start a new life in a new land."

If there is friction between the newcomers and their neighbors, it seems to come from the willingness of the Europeans to embrace new technology and methods - and their tendency to regard the native farmers as a bit spoiled.

"The Americans and Canadians seem a little lazy, not in their work but their thinking," said a Dutch farmer who settled four years ago in southern Michigan. "They have access to so much cheap land, they've never had to farm as intensively [as in Europe]. The techniques and practices here are closer to the techniques and practices we used 20 or 30 years ago. Just doing your accounts on a desktop computer doesn't make a modern farm."

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