Story published in August 2017 | Interview conducted in October 2016
Last fall, I discovered the true meaning of living in the countryside when I interviewed the Ally family in Friona, Texas. They comes from Deurle, Sint-Martens-Latem, close to the city of Ghent. They own a dairy farm with more than 2,000 cows. I have so much respect and admiration for this family because they work so hard! I tried to follow them through a typical day in their life and I couldn't. I had to take several naps and breaks throughout the day, and that had never happened before. The Ally family moved to the United States in 2008, and let me tell you, it was a bumpy ride. I'll let Koen tell you all about the entrepreneurial journey.
I wanted to become a dairy farmer and I had the chance to take over the dairy farm of my dad. I took over my dads dairy in 1999. We milked about 70 cows. The dairy had been in the family since the 1700's - 1800's - that's how far our history goes back. But there was a problem. It was zoned out in the 1960's. The government zoned the whole country up because there are so many people living on a small spot, that we have to make rooms to keep living together. They drew the line and our farm landed in a nature zone. I was the last generation that was allowed put to fertilizer on the ground, to farm there, and live there. Not being allowed to do anything with our dairy made us look around to see what opportunities were there.
I came in contact with people that were farming, dairying in Eastern Germany, Poland, Hungary, all the way up to Ukraine. Until one day I got in contact with a company that was building projects in the United States. We were going to partner up, build a big dairy there. We moved to Indiana. But then that company went completely broke. The project never got built. Our invested money was gone. The owner is hiding right now somewhere in Brazil.
We stayed two years in Indiana. We did a little crop farming - we were farming about 400 acres - but that was not enough to support our family: when the company went broke, all our lease contracts were gone with it. We had to ask ourselves: "what opportunities are left for us in the United States?" We wanted to become our own boss, but there was not a lot out there that we could afford.
By coincidence, we came in this neighborhood in Friona, TX. The dairy was sitting empty. There was no house here. We talked to the owner. He wanted to have somebody there, at least to clean up and to keep everything running. I had to ask the landlord of the dairy if he could help me with financing a tractor. I had to ask the salesman of the mixer wagon to help me finance the mixer wagon. Whenever we had that all rolling then we could find a bank that wanted to start helping us, and then that helped us to grow the dairy even faster.
Yes. When we look back, it is still hard to realize that we've done it. That it grew that fast. The first night after signing the contract to lease this dairy, I couldn't sleep! "How in hell can I sign a contract that we're going to milk and pay for rent for a thousand cows when we only have one hundred?".
That's every time we added cows to our operation, we saw new opportunities to produce more efficiently. At the end that's what keeps us in business. That's cost of production. One of our closest neighbors, just straight down the road here, he has a yard in there with 50,000 beef cows on the yard. Three years ago, they did a little expansion: they went from 50,000 to 70,000! So with our two thousand milk cows we're like a small cozy dairy in the area.
A typical day, well, they all look alike. Seven days a week, 365 days a year. They start at 4am. Me and Els get up. She helps milking the sick cows. I drive through all the fieldlings to check if everything looks all right. I check on the amount of feeds, whether the cows ate their food or adjustments are necessary. Then I go behind the computer to check on the amounts of milk that has been harvested the day before. Then I look for sick cows on the computer. There are some sensors that we have on the cow that gives us good idea of how they are doing. I check what kind of medicine they need and we treat those cows.
Then the feeder guys start feeding, and the guys that do the milking shift start milking the fresh cows after some hoof trimming. I have breakfast with Els and the children around 7:00 AM. Then I take a little nap. Then we do whatever needs to be done. That can be a variety from buying feed to repairing stuff, to work with my cow people on cows that are sick, that need extra help. All kinds of things the whole day through. If we're lucky we're done by four or five in the afternoon; if we have bad luck whatever can happen. That's part of running this business.
I'm still the Belgian that I was eight years ago. We did not-- as a Belgian, we did not develop. When we watch the news, or at least I do, we watch Het Laatste Nieuws. I'm not watching America Today or whatever. Am I Americanized or Texanized? Probably some, yes. Will I ever become a real American? There is a lot of culture that I miss. If people start talking about the Dallas Cowboys, and Kansas City, or whatever-- the rivalry and between universities and so forth, that's something that I just don't have. It is difficult for me to follow.
If I talk to people over here and they start talking about baseball. That's out of my reach. That makes me uncomfortable and might make them uncomfortable too. Of course, I like to talk a lot about cows. I'm very into cows and there's a lot of people that don't like to talk about cows. That makes me a little bit a weirdo too.
Maybe what surprised me is that you get used pretty quick to what this country is about, which the freedom. You also start asking sometimes yourself, "what's the normal? What's normal?" Yes. That's just what a lot of people believe in that seems to be normal, but it can be different in between countries. But we are not that far apart, this is a Western country that keeps the big surprise maybe smaller than expected, I guess.
I like the freedom and the safety of the country. I like doing business in this country. It gives me and my family tremendous opportunities. If you want to grab them and work for them, it gives you great opportunities to survive, and to grow also as a family. But I'm pretty sure not everybody is looking for this or wants this.
I like raising my kids in this country. There's less support for the lower class, so if you can handle that part then you can give your children tremendous amount of opportunities. On the rural country there's really space for young boys to run around, play around. The disadvantage is that our family lives very far away. It takes quite some effort to maintain contact. That distance is just there.
Be careful if you come with kids that are close to the age of 18 because you get your visa at the age of 18, they have to support their own visa or they get illegal in this country. I think that's a big problem. It's not that simple to stay illegal in this country. That's my experience. It is very possible but keep a very good eye on that.
Dirk is one of the most instructed person I have met in my life. He moved to the United States to pursuit his passion for Maya and Pre-Columbian civilizations. He is now the Curator of Anthropology at the Houston Museum of Sciences!!! He took me behind the scenes at his museum. Follow Dirk through a few days of his life!
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