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After three decades, Dutchman revisits dairy families from college internship

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A charming grin flickered across the face of Gerrit Hofmeyer, 58, on Thursday as the Dutch visitor recounted months spent here with north country dairymen in 1977.

He returned last week to the farms where he studied as a 22-year-old agriculture student completing a summer internship.

He now is a successful farmer in the Netherlands, and much has changed in the dairy industry since he spent weeks at four north country farms. Advances in technology have abounded here and in Holland, where Irene H. Stackel and her late husband, Douglas J., met Mr. Hofmeyer in 1976 while vacationing in Europe.

During an interview with the Times, Mrs. Stackel and Mr. Hofmeyer recalled how they randomly crossed paths that summer while the Stackels were touring green pasturelands. Riding on a milk wagon pulled by a tractor, the group stopped by the Hofmeyer family farm, where they spotted the young man, who was wearing wooden shoes.

The chance encounter was fortuitous because he was the only Hofmeyer who spoke English.

“That was the click — the language,” he said.

When the Stackels discovered Mr. Hofmeyer was pursuing an internship in the United States, they quickly invited him to visit Centerdale Farm in Rutland Center the following summer. Mr. Hofmeyer studied farming for two weeks with the Stackels during the summer of 1977, as well as on farms owned by the Murrays in Copenhagen, the Alfords in Mannsville and the LaFontaines in the town of Rutland. He also visited farms in Indiana and Canada.

What struck him the most during that internship, he said, was the vast quantity of milk that was produced by Holstein cows. Holsteins weren't introduced in the Netherlands until the 1980s, he said, and in the 1970s most Dutch farmers owned smaller, red-and-white spotted dual-purpose cattle that produced much less milk. Mr. Hofmeyer's experiences working with Holsteins during the period came in handy when he later served as a cattle classifier for the major Dutch cattlemen's association in the Netherlands from 1980 to 1992.

Though the Dutch were behind the Americans when it came to dairy cattle, Mr. Hofmeyer said, the Netherlands became the epicenter of milking technology in the 1990s. The first robotic milking systems were invented by Netherlands manufacturer Lely, an advancement that greatly reduced the amount of labor needed on farms. A prototype of the Lely Astronaut milking robot was launched in 1992, he said, which farmers now consider one of the most important advancements in the 20th century. Because Dutch farmers have a harder time hiring milkers than farmers in the United States, about 30 percent of them own robots.

“We don't have immigrant workers to milk the cows, so we try to do things more automatically,” said Mr. Hofmeyer, who purchased a robot to milk 70 cows at his farm in 2008. One robot has the capacity to milk about 70 cows twice a day; about seven cows can be milked in an hour. Operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the robot automatically milks cows, one by one, as they walk through a swinging gate that locks when they enter. The cows are enticed in by a feed bin inside the space. Using lasers, the robot locates the four teats, latching onto its udder with automated arms.

The first milking robots used in Jefferson County were purchased this year from the Netherlands manufacturer by the Mason family, which owns River Haven Farm in Cape Vincent. Two robots were purchased to milk the farm's 105 cattle.

Visiting his “north country family” has brought Mr. Hofmeyer unspeakable joy.

“We have a lot in common,” he said. “We're interested in agriculture, live in the countryside, have Christian backgrounds. We try to get the most out of life.”

For 77-year-old Mrs. Stackel's part, Mr. Hofmeyer is like her Dutch son. She's made three trips to visit him and his wife, Bea, in the Netherlands over the years.

“This whole week has been perfect,” she said with tears of joy in her eyes.

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