Ramona Okkema in front of her herd.

Ramona Okkema’s defining journey to dairy promotion

Ramona Okkema boarded a plane at eighteen years old and forever altered the course of her life. A New England dairy farmer’s daughter, she went on a 4-H international exchange trip to the Netherlands. Her trek brought her to seven farms across the small northern European country.

There was the greenhouse where she trimmed and sorted roses. There was the farm owned by a Baron in a castle where she could feel the history behind the stone walls. And there was the moat-guarded dairy farm where she met her future husband, Tjerk.

“Tjerk couldn’t speak 10 words of English and I couldn’t speak 10 words of Friesian,” she laughed. Yet the young couple navigated through the language and culture gap to eventually marry and start a family on the 350-year-old dairy farm in Friesland, a province in the Netherlands.

Almost four decades later, Okkema is on her third dairy farm and a vocal proponent of the nourishing liquid that brought her across the world and back again: milk.  So much so, in fact, that the United Dairy Industry of Michigan (UDIM) noticed her efforts and honored Okkema with the 2019 Excellence in Dairy Promotion award at the Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference in Frankenmuth, Michigan.

Dirk, her son and MMPA member representative, says Okkema has been involved in dairy promotion for many years. “Her work has been spread all around the community and the state of Michigan,” he said.

An MMPA Dairy Communicator, Okkema has organized promotions at local events and volunteered for Montcalm County Little Red Barn and Great Dairy Adventure.

Aerial view of De Grins Oer Dairy.
De Grins Oer Dairy means “over the border” dairy in Friesian. (Photo by Dirk Okkema)

Though she’s a proud dairy farmer and promoter today, Okkema didn’t think she would return to dairy farming. Growing up on a dairy farm in New Hampshire, she had other plans for her future.

“I wanted to learn how to fly airplanes. That was my dream,” she said, firmly denying ever planning to be a dairy farmer when she was younger.

While she does have a pilot’s license and a degree in horticulture from the University of New Hampshire, she is now co-owner of De Grins Oer Dairy in Blanchard, Michigan. They milk 675 cows and have 1,400 total head.

The Okkemas moved to Michigan in 1999 to start De Grins Oer Dairy, which means “over the border” dairy in Friesian. Though Okkema is an American, they didn’t have any familiar ties to Michigan. But between ads in a local farm magazine, new connections made by happenstance, and a well-to-do uncle nudging the family to return to this side of the Atlantic Ocean, the choice became clear.

“’Michigan’ was just in this neon blinking status,” she recalled.

Okkema’s three children—Dirk, Evelyn and Cora—were born in the seven and half years she lived in the Netherlands. All are still active on the farm or in the dairy industry and have dual citizenship.

A sense of community tethers Okkema to the dairy industry. Before they left the Netherlands, the town came together to offer well wishes on the family’s new adventure. “A couple of weeks before we left the Netherlands, my husband came running into the farmhouse and said, ‘You got to get dressed. They’re here to pick us up! They’re here to pick us up!’” she recalled.

Okkema says village hired a Friesian horse and buggy to take them up and down every street in their village to say goodbye. “It was absolutely amazing,” she said, noting the community support from their former home.

Back in the U.S., Okkema strives to be part of their current community and share her dairy story.  Okkema says she feels a drive to promote the product her farm produces because of a culmination of her life experiences.

“There was a connection growing up on dairy farm in New England then marrying a dairy farmer in the Netherlands and then moving here,” she explained. “I’ve seen the work my father and my husband and my family do. Yet the general public doesn’t really understand the benefits of dairy. I decided it was time to share.”

Okkema received her first lesson in the consumer knowledge gap as a young girl. She was the only one of the 453 people in her graduating class in who lived on a dairy farm. In an area where she says today the property hardly sells for less than $1 million per acre, there were a lot of “misconceptions” about dairy farming among her peers.

“I think the way I’m wired, that enamored in me to set the record straight of just how good and special and unique it is to live the life of dairy family,” she explained.

Today, she’s using her life’s journey as a motivator for her dairy promotion work in Michigan.

“Ramona’s dedication to promoting dairy goes above and beyond,” said Sharon Toth, CEO of UDIM “She is an inspiration to everyone in the dairy community.”

Ramona Okkema posing with award.
Ramona Okkema (center) was awarded the Excellence in Dairy Promotion award at the Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference in FEbruary 2019 by UDIM CEO Sharon Toth (left) and UDIM president Jim Reid (right).

For example, Okkema helps at the Montabella School Carnival, where students learned about farm animals such as lambs, calves, chickens, ducks and rabbits. She also brought Maxine — a simulated cow for the children to milk — to help them learn more about what cows eat and the nutrition benefits of milk.

“Maxine is such a hit,” she said.  “It’s worked so much so that there is a ‘Maxine 2’ owned by Mecosta County Farm Bureau. She has been cloned.”

Okkema has also used resources available through UDIM including the Nature’s Sport Drink Grant for the Montabella High School football team and a “Jump with Jill” event at the Montabella Elementary School. The Okkema family and farm employees work together on a float for the local parade with a theme focused on educating the public about dairy farming.

Then in 2014, her family hosted Breakfast on the Farm in 2014 for 2,000 people. “I enjoyed being right there with people and answering questions one on one,” Okkema said.

Okkema recommends individuals hoping to amp up their dairy promotion should look within their community to events already happening. “If you want expound people’s awareness of dairy then find an area where a lot of dairy products could be utilized,” she said.

After earning the honor of the Excellence in Dairy Promotion award, Okkema feels more of a responsibility to continue promoting dairy.

“It is just truly, truly important that people understand it’s not just a place where air has the certain aroma to it and you can hear cows mooing,” she said. “Dairy is the greatest gift that nature could give mankind.”

–Allison Stuby Miller

This article was originally published in the June issue of the Michigan Milk MessengerSubscribe »