Original Published on Sep 30, 2022 at 07:25
By Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Anja and Henry van der Vlies are from the same town in Holland. Yet, they never met until both were in Canada.
Henry was on a one-year work permit and worked on a dairy farm in Moorefield.
Anja was on her third trip to Canada with her church when she met Henry. Realizing they were the perfect match, the couple flew back to Hardinxveld-Giessendam, The Netherlands, in 1995 to marry and return to this country to fulfill Henry’s dream of becoming a successful farmer.
“He wanted to emigrate because he saw potential for himself to farm here. He would not have been able to farm in Holland,” Anja explained.
Anja and Henry had four children along the way; a daughter, who recently got married, is a registered nurse and lives in Cambridge. Two sons live at home and work on the farm full-time, and one son has just gone to college and hopes to take over the family farm one day.
In 1996, they purchased the farm they now call home in Teeswater. After taking possession in 1997, they worked hard with what they had and built their dairy goat business from a few goats in the beginning into a very successful enterprise called Teesmore Dairy Goats.
Teesmore Dairy Goats is one of approximately 230 commercial dairy goat farms in the province, according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
The couple started with around 200 milking goats, doing all of the work themselves, and now have around 2,000 total, with 1,200 milking goats and seven employees on hand to help them.
Anja quickly became involved with the community, and she is a familiar face at different agricultural events around town. She recently participated in the Teeswater Fair, hosting the kids’ pedal tractor event.
The pride in what they have built is apparent in the pristine beauty of the landscaped yards, the cleanliness of the barns and yards, and the humane treatment of the animals in their care.
The dairy goat business is not all smooth sailing; it has ups and downs in the market, and as a non-supply management industry, there are no guarantees for secure and fair pricing like in other agricultural sectors, such as dairy cows.
“We’ve been in the industry for 28 years now. And we’ve seen lots of ups and downs. So, there is growth, and then there’s stagnation,” Anja said. “We’ve seen a lot of farms come and go over the years because, you know, they tell us the sky’s the limit, you can produce as much milk as you want, and all those promises of growth, and then it doesn’t materialize. Then all of a sudden, we have the milk, but then there is no demand any more.
“Our cost is going up, but our milk price is not going up. So, as farmers we take that difference.”
The family grows and produces the feed and bedding for their goats, reusing the manure and straw left over to fertilize their fields, completing a circular system of nutrients for the goats and the land.
In 2008, they purchased another farm and now own 300 acres; they use both properties to grow corn, ryegrass, alfalfa, wheat, and soybeans.
Anja said they grow more than they need for cash crops, which helps to supplement the goat milk business.
The Vandervlies family loves their goats.
The goats seem to love living on the farm; they are well cared for, playful, and intelligent.
At the milking parlour, hundreds of goats waited for their turn to go on the rotating wheel, where they were milked and fed. They appeared to be quite happy as they entered and exited the gates, resembling kids at a fair waiting in long line-ups to ride the carousel, talking and laughing, climbing on the railings.
The system includes an automatic hold and release bar to secure the goats, let loose by a small bar at the bottom, triggered when the feed bowl lowers. Anja said they had had quite a few smart ones who knew how to activate the release mechanism, loosening themselves, causing disruptions in the production line for a time.
Inside the circular ring of goats, two employees work together like synchronized swimmers, weaving in and out, one attaching the milk units and the other checking and removing the units, all the while ensuring the goats are safe and everything is working correctly.
“It’s a little intimidating when you see it all at first and for new employees, when you’re training them,” Anja said. “It’s so many moving parts but once you know the routine it’s pretty straight forward.”
From humble beginnings such as theirs, Anja never forgets how lucky she is to be able to live, work, and enjoy the land in Canada.
They greet each morning with a whispered prayer of thanks as they watch the beautiful sunrise over their home, grateful to be here.