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Change offers opportunity for dairywoman Ingrid Gropp

Alice Guthrie Published on 31 October 2014
Dirk & Betty Willemsen and Ingrid & Ken Gropp

Dirk and Betty Willemsen immigrated from Holland in 1983. They had visited Canada on a holiday and had gone home with new ideas to think about.

Back home in Holland, there was no opportunity for Dirk to farm; his brother had taken over the family farm, and land is seldom available.



He had made a life working off-farm, but the desire to farm was still there. While in Canada, they saw farms for sale, and it didn’t take long before they came back to Canada ready to start farming for themselves.

They had two young daughters and added two more after their arrival. It was a big change for Betty, who had grown up as a city girl. “I loved the space,” she laughs.

It wasn’t easy getting started. There was, first of all, a language barrier. Then there were the high interest rates of the mid-’80s – around 14 percent – and banks unwilling to loan money to new immigrants for start-up. There were problems in getting their guilders exchanged to Canadian dollars.

The Willemsens say they were very fortunate that the previous owner of the Milverton, Ontario-area farm they purchased was willing to work with them to give them their chance for success. There was also a wonderful and supportive community who offered lots of help. “We loved it,” Betty recalls.

The old barn was set up as a tiestall facility with space for 30 cows. No youngstock came with the package. Dirk did most of the work involved himself – welding, cement work, renovations and repairs – to expand his operation.


At first, he removed a wall to change a small pen into four more stalls. Growth was slow but measurable. In 1988, he expanded the original barn to 50 tiestalls. Shortly afterward, he purchased more land across the road.

By 1996-1997, Dirk was able to erect a freestall barn large enough for 60 milking cows plus dry cows and youngstock. All indoor cementing was done by hand on this barn. He still milked his cows in the tiestalls for a few more years.

On a visit home in 1988, Dirk observed his first robotic milking unit at a research farm and became interested in the possibility. He installed the first milking robot in Perth County in 2002, which remained the only one in that county for several years.

This was also one of the first 10 farms in all of Canada to install a milking robot.

Betty admits to getting a scare shortly after the robot took over the milking. She returned home from a day out to find someone in the house at chore time – but quickly realized it was Dirk sitting reading a paper, something that had not previously happened.

The Willemsens had good reasons for their decision to install the robot. First of all, “Family is very important,” Dirk states. With the robot he was able to be home for family meals and take a more active role in his daughters’ lives. “Family life completely changed,” Betty adds. “It was the best thing we ever did.”


Dirk also enjoys new technology, so it was interesting to him to see it applied on his own operation. Finally, they considered the robot to be an investment in Dirk’s health, as he knew his knees would be compromised if he continued to milk as he had been doing.

Changing over to the robot was no problem. The manufacturer provided excellent service and advice as required.

While all of the Willemsen daughters enjoyed animals, it wasn’t really expected that any of them would take over the farm. Ingrid, the third daughter, was always interested in the animals and helped with chores while at home, particularly through high school. She also worked for a time with a local veterinarian.

Following high school, Ingrid studied early childhood education at college and worked in that field. She married Ken Gropp, a mechanic, and the couple had four children. Ingrid was in the process of trying to define the direction her life would take for the future when she started going to the farm to help during her parents’ vacation in 2010.

It was then that she realized how much she missed working with animals. The idea grew that she wanted to farm. She talked over the idea with her parents and found them to be encouraging.

She shadowed her dad to be sure it would be a good fit for her. There were so many possibilities to consider.

Taking over the farm wasn’t something she had ever really expected to do. Women didn’t farm on their own. If a woman wanted to farm, she needed to marry a farmer. That’s the way it seemed during her growing-up years … but times change, and with change comes new opportunities.

The robot had been installed when she was in her final year of high school, removing the commitment of milking and lightening the workload. Things were so much more automated that the physical strength wasn’t as much of an issue as it had been in times past.

The decision to take over the farm came gradually, supported by her husband, Ken. The actual takeover is also gradual, as Ingrid assumes responsibility for more things.

She works alongside Dirk, learning from him how the operation works. Already she is doing much of the feeding and working with the animals. She does most of the work of keeping registrations up to date. Decision-making is a joint effort.

They work about 220 acres and grow all of their own feed, purchasing only the dairy supplement. They feed high-moisture corn, molasses and a dairy supplement in the robot. Haylage, corn silage and soyex (pressed soy pellets) are fed in the centre aisle of the freestall barn.

The herd numbers about 60 milking cows, all registered Holsteins. The original robot was replaced this year with a newer model to keep things fresh and exciting.

As far as the future, Ingrid has no immediate plans for change. She’d like to keep it a small family farm, and expansion is limited as the farm is situated within town limits.

Her first goal is to learn the business as it is. She is satisfied with gradual involvement and is in no hurry to complete a takeover from Dad. “I would rather work beside him,” she laughs.

Besides the farm, Ingrid keeps busy with her children’s activities as well as her own interests – girl guides, baseball, curling, church and volunteer time at school.  PD

Alice Guthrie is a freelance writer from Hagersville, Ontario.