The camels grazing on this green patch of farmland a few miles outside of Den Bosch may look happy enough. But milking them is another story; moody camels are known to spit and kick, and mares will give milk only when one of their offspring is nearby.
“You have to show them respect,” said Frank Smits, the proprietor of the camel farm. “They’re a lot more stubborn than cows.”
Mr. Smits, currently the only farmer in Europe with permission to sell camel’s milk, is just as stubborn as his camels. Since starting his farm in 2006, he has run afoul of the European Union, which forbids the importation of camels, animal rights advocates and the Dutch agricultural authorities.
Mr. Smits, 26, saw an untapped market for camel’s milk in the rising number of immigrants to Europe from Somalia and Morocco, where camel’s milk has long been popular for its supposed curative properties. Mr. Smits’s milk sells for upwards of $15 a quart at a few dozen Islamic groceries and health-food stores throughout the Netherlands, with the rest exported to immigrant communities in Belgium, Germany and Britain.
In muddy jeans and boots, Mr. Smits looks every bit the young farmer. Turns out, though, that his father is a neurologist, and that he studied both marketing and agriculture at college.
And there is one thing he wants everybody to know: he’s not in it for the money.
“Working as a checkout boy at the supermarket would pay better,” he said. The camels cost about $11,000 each, he said, and one camel produces only about a gallon and a half of milk per day.
His motivation was a 2006 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which has been promoting camel’s milk not only for its nutritional value but also as a revenue source, especially for the nomadic farmers who have been milking camels for millenniums. The report said the market for camel’s milk products could be as large as $10 billion.
Mr. Smits’s professors at college were so taken with the idea, they almost flunked him. His final thesis, on the feasibility of introducing camel’s milk to the European market, earned him the American equivalent of a D-minus.
“They just didn’t understand it,” Mr. Smits said. “I used a lot of research and literature from the F.A.O., but my teachers said the literature I used wasn’t scientific enough. Then I used that same paper to apply for grants and loans, and it worked fine.”
Simply getting the camels was no small feat. The European Union does not allow them to be imported, so Mr. Smits had to find some from within the trading bloc. He managed to do so in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, which belong to Spain, a member of the union. Mr. Smits shipped in three pregnant females, and soon began milking them on a small plot of land next to his dormitory in Den Bosch.
Local animal-welfare groups cried foul, arguing that the nation already had enough exploited animals. Tamping down that controversy, he managed to get his operation up and running, only to have it shut down a few months later by the Dutch agricultural authorities because camels were not on the official list of commercial farm animals.
Mr. Smits paid to have a Dutch government agency investigate whether camels could be added to that list, which meant having to demonstrate that he could run the farm “without unacceptable animal welfare consequences.” Foxes and chinchillas were removed from the list in 2008, with mink to follow in 2018. But the authorities gave Mr. Smits the go-ahead, granting him a two-year trial period, presumably to show he could milk his camels humanely. That period was recently extended for another two years, until the end of 2010.
Whatever curative properties camel’s milk may have are thought by its devotees to disappear if it is pasteurized, a belief that has limited its distribution — unpasteurized milk is generally forbidden in Europe and the United States.
But Mr. Smits managed to obtain permission to produce unpasteurized camel’s milk, which he does with the help of an automated milking machine he developed with a dairy equipment manufacturer. Some experts estimate that a camel’s daily output could ultimately be raised to as much as five gallons using modern equipment and methods.
Expanding markets is proving to be at least as difficult, with the bans on unpasteurized milk and a ban on camel’s milk altogether in the United States.
But things are looking up. The Food and Drug Administration recently agreed to add camel’s milk to its list of salable products in the United States, but it still cannot be sold or imported for human consumption until it passes a battery of tests. An agency spokesman noted that these things take time — water buffalo milk was approved in 2003, but it took until 2009 before all the tests were completed.
There are several studies under way into the health benefits of camel’s milk. At nearby Wageningen University, for example, researchers are investigating whether camel’s milk can provide some help for people with diabetes. The results are not yet in.
For Mr. Smits, milk is only the beginning. Last year he developed a camel’s milk cheese that sells for around $60 a pound, and he hopes to introduce bread to the world’s growing array of camel’s-milk products, like chocolate, ice cream and soap.
He now owns about 40 camels in Cromvoirt, roughly 10 of which can be milked. He has not applied for European farm subsidies, he says, because the paperwork is too overwhelming.
To make a profit, Mr. Smits said he needs a herd of about 120, a goal he hopes to reach before 2015. He is on the lookout for a bigger farm.