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Published: Saturday, 6/12/2004

Dairy farmers claim harassment, file suit

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

CONTINENTAL, Ohio - A Dutch dairy farming couple is fighting back.

Jan and Anja Van Ham say when they were building their 700-cow dairy in 2001 in the midst of farm fields, they could understand that some neighbors were worried about change.

Even though Putnam County is rural and one of the top soybean and wheat producing counties in the state, it has not had large dairy farms until recently.

The Van Hams claim, one of their most vocal opponents - Bryan Wildermuth - came to their home, yelled and screamed at them and their daughter, and demanded they return to their native Netherlands.

Mr. Wildermuth told the Van Hams they did not belong in the United States, they say.

Last week, the Van Hams and their Van Ham Dairy LLC filed suit in Putnam County Common Pleas Court against Mr. Wildermuth, Citizens of Putnam County for Clean Air and Water Inc., Claude Kesler, and Kathleen Burkhart, alleging ethnic intimidation, civil assault, defamation, and civil

conspiracy.

Mr. Wildermuth, who lives on County Road 22, about 1 1/2 miles north of the Van Ham farm, said yesterday the Van Hams' lawsuit was just a tactic.

"It's all made up. It's all lies," he said.

Mr. Wildermuth and his family are among seven families who sued the Van Ham Dairy last fall alleging negligence, nuisance, invasion of quiet enjoyment of their homes, and other complaints of manure, flies, dust, and other irritants.

In that suit, the neighbors asked for $2.8 million and later proposed a settlement of $5.8 million, the Van Hams said. That case is to go to trial next year.

The Van Hams' suit asks for more than $25,000, but the couple said all they want is a stop to what they call harassment.

The Van Hams said they thought that after they had been milking cows for some time and abiding by state rules - the family late last year received approval to increase its herd to 2,250 cows - that untruths about them would stop.

"But it won't. It keeps going on," Mr. Van Ham, 48, said. "If we don't do anything it's never going to stop ... These diehards, they won't stop."

The Van Hams' suit states they believed that Mr. Wildermuth, a 40-year-old construction worker, would physically harm their family, their home, or their dairy, when he came to their home uninvited last year and demanded they return to the Netherlands.

Mr. Wildermuth yesterday cut off an interview with The Blade, declining to comment about specific allegations by the Van Hams. The Van Hams' suit contends the defendants falsely accused their family of "purposely spraying manure on private property in an attempt to injure the health and welfare of individuals and the community."

The suit alleges the "defendants maliciously combined and conspired with each other and others to make false verbal and written reports to governmental agencies, to publish false statements about plaintiffs and their business through the media and by other means, and to disparage agricultural products produced by the dairy in an attempt to ruin the plaintiffs' family business and drive them out of the United States."

None of the three people the Van Hams are suing accepted invitations over the years to tour the farm.

One of the defendants, Kathleen Burkhart, 47, is secretary-treasurer of the Citizens of Putnam County group that formed about four years ago in opposition to large dairies. She said yesterday the group has four members.

Ms. Burkhart, a homemaker, lives on County Road 16 about 12 miles from the Van Ham dairy, which is near Continental and about 70 miles southwest of Toledo.

Another defendant, Claude Kesler, 66, raises corn, soybeans, and wheat and lives on State Rt. 634 about a mile from the dairy. He said he has lived on a farm all his life and when he was young his father had livestock, including about a dozen cows.

But he said the smell of the Van Ham dairy is "altogether different."

The Van Hams said they feel only about six families oppose their farm. More than 600 people walked through their farm and drank milk shakes at an open house in 2002 and since then school children and nursing home residents have toured.

At least 25 area farmers have inquired about selling corn and alfalfa to the family; the Van Hams spend $1 million a year buying local crops from five farmers. Their planned expansion would increase that to $3.5 million a year.

About the same number have inquired about getting the dairy's manure as fertilizer for their fields. The family spreads manure on fields tilled by 10 farmers, sharing the cost of transporting the manure there.

Even so, Mrs. Van Ham, 47, said she is distressed by the allegations from a few.

"You have the feeling that you are the biggest criminal on Earth and all you want to do is farm," she said.

Contact Jane Schmucker at:

jschmucker@theblade.com

or 419-724-6102.



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