Dutch immigrants open dairies, stir controversy in Ohio – Pt. 1

Immigrants from the Netherlands have built 24 dairies in Ohio since 1998. The farms are large by Ohio standards. The average dairy in Ohio has 100 cows. But the Dutch-owned dairies house up to 3,000 cows. Dozens of complaints have been filed against these Dutch dairies and regulators have issued numerous violations against them for breaking environmental laws, including the federal Clean Water Act. Now the Ohio Farmers Union and some smaller citizens’ groups are calling for a moratorium on construction of large livestock operations. In the first of a 2 part series about Dutch dairies and the controversy surrounding them WOSU’s Tamara Keith visits a dairy in Putnam County.

Jose Van Wezel walks through the largest of her 2 dairy barns. There are hundreds of cows in here, in freestalls.

Van Wezel has a real affection for these animals. Some of them have even been given names.

Her family started in the dairy business in the Netherlands back in the 1600s. Van Weysel and her husband had 50 cows and did everything on their own, from growing grain to feed them, to milking. But they wanted to expand. And she says it soon became clear that they wouldn’t be able to do it in their native country.

“We looked in the Netherlands. We looked all over the world basically and Ohio was the place to be,” said Van Wezel.

In 2001, Jose Van Wezel and her husband opened the Wezbra Dairy in Putnam County, milking 675 cows, with the help of 9 full-time employees. Since opening, 5 complaints have been filed with the state. And the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has issued 2 violation notices against the farm. Those issues have since been resolved. The Van Wezel’s dairy is not alone in its troubles. State Agriculture regulators have repeatedly cited Dutch-owned dairies for improper manure disposal.

A company that specializes in helping farmers from the Netherlands, set up dairies in Ohio and surrounding states, has been singled out in recent months by federal regulators for violating the clean water act. In November, The US Environmental Protection agency issued administrative orders against 16 dairies associated with Vreba Hoff Dairy Development, including 9 in Ohio. The EPA says the dairies allowed manure to get into waterways. Cecilia Conway is a partner in Vreba-Hoff. She defends the farmers.

It’s a fact of dairy operations. Cows produce manure, and lots of it. According to one study a single cow can produce as much waste as 50 people.

While Jose Van Wezel’s cows are being milked in another area, a worker uses a skip loader to push manure from their stalls. The waste eventually ends up a large pond, just outside the barn, where it is stored until it can be used as fertilizer on neighboring fields.

Construction workers are putting the finishing touches, on Van Wezel’s new manure pond. She says it’s part of large expansion plan recently approved by the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

Van Wezel says she loves her job. She loves the new life she and her family have created in Ohio. And she’s reluctant to talk about the growing opposition to large dairies in the state. She says 99-percent of the people in the community have come to accept her dairy, the other one percent, she says she can’t do much about.

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