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European farmers are coming to America
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Dutch dairy farmer John Huntjes came to America and started a 300-cow dairy near Wood Lake in November 2002. Huntjens hopes a state law that forbids foreigners from owning farmland in Minnesota is changed by lawmakers. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
State agriculture officials say Minnesota could benefit from a new wave of European immigrants, but isn't. Many European dairy farmers are selling their farms and moving to the United States. However, current law keeps those farmers from buying land in Minnesota. Agriculture officials want to change that. They say European farmers have the desire to buy failing Minnesota dairy farms. But some say the state shouldn't lay out the welcome mat for foreigners while Minnesota dairy farmers are struggling.

Wood Lake, Minn. — Not long ago, this now-vibrant dairy farm near Wood Lake in southwestern Minnesota was out of business. But then an interested buyer showed up. John Huntjens, the dairy's new owner, is from the Netherlands. Huntjens started his new 300-cow dairy here last November, and he's proud of what he's accomplished in his few short months in America.

Despite Huntjens' hard work, state law says he shouldn't own this farm. Minnesota's Alien Farm Law prohibits foreigners from owning farm land. Huntjens didn't know that when he bought this farm. Neither did the local realtor who sold him the farm. Huntjens essentially entered into an illegal deed.

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Image Herman and Marlene Gabbert

When he found out, he went to state authorities. Now state agriculture officials hope to change state law so Huntjens can keep farming in Minnesota. In fact, they hope more farmers like him come to the state.

Rep. Greg Blaine, R-Little Falls, is also a dairy farmer. Blaine says because of urban sprawl and tight government regulations, European farmers are selling out, and coming to the United States. Blaine says Minnesota is missing out on that influx of foreign farmers. He's co-sponsored a bill that would allow certain qualified foreigners to own farmland in Minnesota.

"These families are relocating to the United States, and they're relocating to the Midwest," says Blaine. "Whether it's Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, they're coming here and they're helping these states stabilize their infrastructure."

Blaine believes allowing foreign farmers to buy dairies in Minnesota would strengthen the state's lagging dairy industry. He says an injection of new farm families might help increase the state's milk production. But not everyone thinks opening to doors to foreign farmers is a good idea. Herman Gabbert, 69, runs a 50-cow dairy farm with his son near Foley, in central Minnesota. Gabbert opposes changing Minnesota's Alien Farm Law. He's afraid state officials will spend their time luring foreign dairy farmers to the state.

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Image Minnesota Ag Commissioner Gene Hugoson

"County agents and people from the Extension department will be helping them find the place, and helping them get the financing arranged. They'll do a lot of things that actually cost money that may not show up directly, but I'm sure they'll do it," says Gabbert. "And yet a young farmer starting out -- they won't do a thing for."

Gabbert also thinks foreign farmers will have a hard time making a living in the current atmosphere of low dairy prices.

But Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson doesn't see it that way. Hugoson says there's no reason foreign farmers should be restricted from trying to make a living in Minnesota.

"If somebody has some money, if they've got an opportunity to buy a dairy farm that's for sale, and they can realize the American dream in the process -- that is, raise their kids in a system that they've heard so much about -- isn't that what we're all about?" asks Hugoson.

State agriculture officials say a change in the Alien Farm Law won't lead to large corporate farms run by foreign interests. They say a major stipulation of the bill requires foreign farmers live on the farm they own 10 months out of the year.

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