Dairy operators plan value-added food business

OTTERBURNE, Man. —This lush, green countryside, wooded and rich with crop growth, redolent with the smells of happy cows and their manure, could easily be a pleasant part of Holland.

You might think this place was in the low countries if you drove up the Optimist Holsteins lane and met Hans and Nelleke Gorter.

Their Dutch accents sound slightly different from the accents of Mennonites and Hutterites in the area and their path to this part of the Red River Valley was sparked by a different force, although you could say they too are refugees.

The couple realized they could never afford farmland in their native Holland, so they took a camping trip in Canada to find a place where they could afford to buy land and live the farming lifestyle they wanted.

Hans remembers the surprised reaction of the local real estate agent in 1987 when he was asked to come and pick up the couple at a campground, and he found them in a tent.

Nelleke recalls the intensity of the emotions that defined the couple’s life after they bought this land in 1987 and began farming it.

“It’s been a good choice, but I wouldn’t want to do the first two years over,” said Nelleke.

“It was 1988. Everything was dried out. We had no crops. Whatever. You just put one foot in front of the other.”

Then she became pregnant and the stress of their move, the challenges of setting up a new farm, and tough Prairie conditions became overwhelming.

“My mom would phone and I would cry,” said Nelleke.

But she also remembers just as vividly the joy of winter, which she prefers to the wet, chilly climate in Holland.

“We played outside so much. The kids loved it.”

Farming has worked out well for the Gorters. They run a 120 milking cow dairy operation, with about 320 dairy animals of various stages on their farm, and just started developing a raw milk yogurt business.

That yogurt was the inspiration of their son, Walter, who, along with a partner, opened a restaurant last winter in Winnipeg specializing in soup.

“What can we do for breakfast?” was Walter’s question for Hans.

Yogurt seemed a natural answer so they began working with University of Manitoba food and product developers to create a healthy breakfast.

“It’s better than you can buy in the stores, I’m pretty sure, because it’s my own milk, I’m proud to say,” said Hans.

The family hopes to build its own on-farm yogurt plant next year. There is already more demand for the yogurt than they can produce at the university.

Hans and Nelleke seem to have a natural feel for animal agriculture. Their cows nuzzle them and take time out from munching hay to interact with their human bosses as they walk around their barns and outdoor yards. It’s something they’ve passed on to their kids, who are close with their parents. Daughter Ellen lives on a dairy farm near Beausejour, Man., with her husband, Steven, and Albert lives nearby in town but works with Hans on the farm.

Nelleke laughs when she remembers the confusion they used to create with neighbours.

“I would tell people who phoned that Hans was in the stable, because that’s what we called a barn, but we didn’t know why everyone thought we owned a lot of horses,” said Nelleke.

She said the Canadian winters are getting harder as the couple gets older, but the Prairies is now their home base.

“This place has given us much more opportunity than we would have had in Holland,” said Nelleke.

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