Europeans see promising land


Immigration: Farmers from the Netherlands and Britain, hemmed in by land shortages, tired of EU rules, move to the New World to find a better future.

July 08, 2000|By Colin Nickerson | Colin Nickerson,BOSTON GLOBE

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.

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