When Anita Van der Laan was a child, she spent her days on her family’s dairy farm in Holland. After high school, she had a tough conversation with her parents that made it clear there wouldn’t be room for her to come back to the farm. That situation stuck with her, and she vowed it would never be the case for her three children. Van der Laan moved to America and started her own farm with her husband Pieter. Today the Van der Laans, milk 4,500 cows and farm 7,000 acres with their grown children. Like farmers across the country, the Van der Laans continue to expand their farm beyond its humble beginnings to allow the business to support their growing family. “We’re in the process of building a new heifer facility so our daughter and daughter-in-law can run that,” Van der Laan says. “We have a son and daughter-in-law work with us. And we have a daughter and a son-in-law working with us. So, it’s a true family operation.” Born in the Netherlands, Anita and Pieter came to America chasing their dream of owning their own dairy. “We started from scratch, so to speak,” Anita explains. “We had milking jobs on other dairies, so we kept our daytime jobs and started our own dairy at the same time.”
The pair started milking their own 40 cows in 1990 and were married the same year. They then started to slowly grow their herd.
“We’d pay 40 cows off and go back to the bank, get a loan for more cows, and so on and so on,” she says. Throughout the 90s the Van der Laans slowly grew their herd on rented facilities in east Texas. Once they reached 200 cows they built their first dairy, in Central Texas. They continued to steadily grow and by the time they moved to Oklahoma, they were milking 900 cows.
“In Oklahoma, we built our first freestall barn. We loved it and built another freestall barn, and another, and another,” she says. “We’ve got four freestall barns on the original place now. We call it the big dairy, it’s the original Van der Laan dairy.”
In 2009, they leaned on Pieter’s philosophy of saving in the good times to make progress in the bad and purchased another dairy in their county. They sat on the facility for a period of time before spending the money to make necessary improvements to move cows there. Today, they milk 1,500 cows at that facility.
For the Van der Laans, the path to success has been marred by challenge. On November 7, 2011, an EF-5 tornado left their farm in ruins. “That was a life altering experience that’s for sure,” Anita says. It was beautiful, muggy day. Meteorologists had been talking about the potential for bad weather, but nobody expected it to materialize because the region hadn’t seen a major rain since June 14 of that year. “[We thought] ‘Finally, there’s rain coming,’” Anita remembers. “I’ll never forget, I had just come home from Louisville and from a local show with our youngest child. We were breeding one of the show heifers in the backyard, and my husband said, ‘look at that. What is that? It looks like a tornado.’ And it was a small tornado. And we looked around and there was another tornado then they went back in the clouds. What’s the chance in November?”
Anita says tornados can happen anytime, but they aren’t of much concern in November.
“That thing started to grow and grow and it turned out to be a EF-4 when it entered our dairy and an EF-5 when it left us,” she says. “I had about 675 calf houses and 98% were gone. Calves were walking around a lot, but some were not walking any longer.”
Fortunately, no employees were hurt on that fateful day. The Van der Laans have a solid storm procedure in place, so employees know what to do. Anita had a post storm procedure in place too; she first called her veterinarian, then her insurance agent, then her banker. They set out to start cleaning up from the storm. Low and behold, dozens of community members came to their rescue. “We started walking around and within half an hour to an hour it was just unbelievable. You know you’re in the right place. Half the town came to help us,” she says choked up. “That night I fed about 300 calves with people from churches and schools and that kept continuing for the next couple of weeks. That’s how you know you’re in the right community.”
It froze that night. The next morning friends from Texas and other areas of the country showed up to pick up heifers that survived. “We did not even know where all our heifers went,” she says. “People borrowed our trailers and took them. I didn’t have a barn to put them in.”
It would be months before the Van der Laans were raising their own heifers again. And unfortunately, the storm was just the first major roadblock on the path to success. Two years later, Anita was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“That’s been my biggest challenge,” she says. “I think about the tornado and I know God prepares you for tough times. I got diagnosed on September 17, 2013.”
Earlier that summer a Brown Swiss heifer named Gema hit Anita with her bottle. “It felt like I got hit with a baseball,” Anita recalls. “There was a big bruise that didn’t go away and it still hurt so I had it checked out.” It turned out to be an aggressive form of breast cancer. While she felt she didn’t have time to deal with the cancer, her doctor told her she needed to make time. And she did. In October she had a mastectomy and then in December she started eight rounds of chemo. She also did a full round of radiation. On May 31, 2014 she was declared cancer free. Unfortunately, that calf that saved her life didn’t live to see that day. “She died of pneumonia during my treatments,” Anita says. “That’s really rare for us and at first I was really upset about it. Then I realized she may have died, but I lived. I believe she was an angel sent in the form I needed, so I would see a doctor.”
The Van der Laans have always considered farming to be a family affair. Anita brought all of her children to the barn even as infants. “I’ll never forget [our oldest son, Eric] was laying in his bassinet in the little office area and one of the milk truck drivers came in and said ‘that’s a young milk hand,’ I said ‘Yeah, it is.’ So, it’s in his blood,” she says. Eric returned to the dairy after earning a B.S. in Animal Science and an MBA at Oklahoma State University. He says he always knew he would end up back on the family farm. His parents made sure all of their kids knew they would be welcome back to the family business when they were ready to return. “I’ve always said it would have taken a significant offer somewhere else for me not to come back,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed working on the dairy. Even when I was in college, I came home and worked every chance I could.”
According to Eric, one of the most interesting challenges of returning to the farm has been stepping into a leadership role. “It’s kind of different to be in a management role,” he says. “Instead of doing certain things, I’m making sure others do them.” Eric’s wife Melanie grew up on a farm. She works for the dairy a few days a week and works on her family’s farm the rest of the time.
Eric was the first child to return the dairy, and the next was Wilma McKay, Anita and Pieter’s middle child. “When I left for college I wasn’t sure if I wanted to come back right away,” she says. Wilma attended a dairy short course at New Mexico State University and it was that experience that changed her mind. “I knew being on the dairy was what I wanted to do, and what faster way to learn than to just try,” she says adding that she feels blessed her parents allowed them to return to the farm right after college. Many of she and Eric’s friends throughout the industry are forced by their parents to work other places before returning to the family farm. “Mom and dad always said, ‘if you want to be here, you’re always welcome,’” she says. “There was never really any big conversation about being able to come back. We just always knew that was an option.”
Wilma’s husband also works for the Van der Laan dairy. Growing up on a small farm north of Frederick, he knew there wouldn’t be opportunity to return to his family’s farm. Today he helps manage the more than 7,000 acres the Van der Laans farm in Oklahoma and Colorado. “Before he and Wilma got married, we sat down with Adam and explained to him that there was room at the farm for him too,” Anita explains. “It’s a real gift to be able to work with my kids and their spouses on a daily basis.”
Liza, the Van der Laans youngest child, is studying plant science at Oklahoma State University. Liza hasn’t decided yet, but Anita says there’s absolutely room for her to return to the farm. “Who knows, but if she wants to come, I say come,” Anita says reminiscing on the idea of having all her children working with her. “I never imagined it any other way.”