Looking out of place against the lush Dutch maize fields, a few dozen camels saunter about between twice-daily milking sessions on Europe’s only commercial camel dairy farm.
Braying loudly and grazing lazily, the desert animals are the pet project of 26-year-old Dutch farmer Frank Smits, who overcame much ridicule and bureaucracy to start his unique venture.
“I started in 2006 with three dromedaries [camels with only one hump]. I have 40 today, of which 10 produce milk,” Smits said on his farm in the northern town of Cromvoirt.
Describing himself as a “cow fanatic” who studied marketing and agriculture, Smits said he switched his attention to camels after reading about the virtues of their milk.
It is less fatty and lower in lactose than cow’s milk, he said, but sweeter to drink.
The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization said camel’s milk is more nutritious than many others and easier to digest for diabetics and lactose intolerant individuals.
Smits sells about 60 liters a day to a market comprised mostly of Turkish and Moroccan immigrants who traditionally drink camel’s milk in their native countries.
“I sell my milk for six euros [US$9] a liter to about 50 Turkish, Arabic and organic food shops in the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK,” he said, but admitted that he had not yet turned a profit.
“I refuse to work with large retail chains who offer farmers ridiculously low prices,” he said.
Smits said his farm should become profitable within two years once he has 15 milk producing camels. Camels reach calf-bearing, and thus milk-producing age, at about four. “In the long run, I hope to have 40,” he said.
The dromedaries are milked one by one, morning and night, by a machine specially adapted to their teats. Each cow provides about 6 liters of milk per day, compared with about 30 liters from a cow.
“They can be very stubborn and only give milk if their young are close by,” said Martijn Spierings, 21, who volunteers as a farm helper.
“At the slightest stress, the source dries up,” he said.
Of the 40 animals on the farm, a dozen have given birth to young. Most of the others are pregnant — all from the sole male of the group.
Smits’ start in the business was not easy, he said.
“I had to find the camels, endure the skepticism of people around me and the protests of animal activists:” he said.
Under EU regulations, camels cannot be imported from outside Europe, but after searching for several months, Smits managed to find a few specimens in Spain’s Canary Islands.
He scraped together his savings and borrowed some money to buy his first camels at 7,000 euros a piece.
He said he jumped through hoops to meet stringent conditions for obtaining a production permit, and stated proudly that his milk meets all the sanitary standards.
One hurdle was the fact that camel’s milk is never pasteurized — “otherwise it loses all its qualities,” Smits said.
Anton Mentink of the Netherlands Controlling Authority for Milk and Milk Products said his service conducts regular checks at the camel dairy because of a risk factor in unpasteurized milk but “there have been no problems so far.”
“We know this farm well, it has all the required permits and meets all our health and hygiene standards,” Mentink said.
Smits believes his farm can serve as a good case study for animal activists who initially opposed his plans.