Jelle Hans Reitsma lived the American dream - until the credit crunch struck. Photo Reitsma family
The life and death of farmer Hans
Published: 10 March 2009 12:57 | Changed: 10 March 2009 13:54
By Freek Staps

The credit crunch has many victims. Some have lost their homes, other their jobs. And some, like Dutch immigrant Jelle Hans Reitsma in California, have even lost their lives.Discussion - Is Jelle Hans Reitsma a victim of the banks?
On the last Friday before Christmas, 41-year-old Roxanne Reitsma woke up with a start. It was only 4.20 a.m. but her husband Jelle Hans was not lying next to her.

In normal times, this wouldn't have worried her. Jelle Hans Reitsma (37) was in the habit of getting up before dawn to inspect his 18,000 cows or to check on the dozens of workers who keep his farm in Corcoran, California, running day and night.

But these were not normal times. The global credit crunch had hit the Reitsma business hard. The couple had just been through a week that Roxanne now describes as "hell on earth". Under pressure from the banks to repay millions of dollars in loans, Reitsma was faced with the choice of selling his cows or having them slaughtered.

As Roxanne got out of bed, the first thing on her mind was to check the vault for the family's handgun. She had taken the precaution of hiding the key to the vault. But the gun was not there.

Roxanne got into a pick-up truck and drove around the huge farm grounds for an hour looking for her husband. Frustrated, she was crying behind the wheel.

At 5.30 a.m., she called the local police to report her husband missing. When she got back to the farmhouse, the police were already waiting for her.

"I went into denial immediately. No. It's not true. No," she recalls.

'Welcome to the kill'

But it was true. The police had found Hans' body in a nearby walnut orchard. He had shot himself.

Hans left behind two farewell notes. One was addressed to his wife and seven children, who are between two and fourteen years old. The other was addressed to the bank's local branch manager. It was only four words long. It read: "Welcome to the kill."

Jelle Hans Reitsma was originally from Friesland, a rural area in the northern Netherlands. In 1988, at age 17, he had emigrated to California's Central Valley in the hopes of realising the American dream.

Hans' particular American dream was to one day own a dairy farm with seven-hundred cows. That would have been a near impossibility in the overpopulated Netherlands, where a two-hundred cows farm is considered pretty big. But here in Corcoran - "California's farming capital," according to a billboard in an empty field - the sky was the limit.

The Reitsma family was no stranger to California. Hans' parents had emigrated there before him but they had eventually returned to Friesland. For the Reitsmas, here was a second chance to make it big in America.

Hans had the financial and moral support of his father, who flew in regularly to offer his advice. His father's main lesson was: "Never let the bank own you."

A loan is called in

The Reitsmas were successful - very successful. Twenty years later, Hans had by far surpassed his dream of a seven-hundred cows farm. The family farm now extended over 900 hectares and employed 86 workers. They had just bought a second farm - a small one by comparison with only 2,000 cows. The family was going to move there so that the children could get to know the real farmer's life - not just the factory-like dairy farm.

That's when the credit crunch struck.

Up to that point, Jelle Hans Reitsma's had been a typical American success story. "The banks love that kind of thing," says Roxanne. "They saw a young guy who was doing well for himself and they wanted to be part of it."

With US real estate prices skyrocketing and demand for dairy products from Asia increasing, times were good for a dairy farmer who owns his own land. Money was cheap, so the banks thought nothing of lending 40 million dollars to a thriving young farmer from the Netherlands.

But by the end of last year, demand from China began to drop while food prices remained as high as ever. Suddenly, producing milk was costing rather than making money.

As the financial crisis spread, Reitsma's banks got nervous. One bank suddenly called in a seven-year loan. "The maturity of the loan was changed from seven years to two months without a word of explanation," says Roxanne.

Hans made the payments as best he could but somehow the bank always wanted more. "We felt ashamed. They treated us as if we were about to run off with their money."

Roxanne doesn't want to name the specific bank. Negotiations about loan repayments are ongoing, and she is afraid that bad publicity for the bank might result in her losing the farm altogether. But the bank in question is a large institution that has benefited from billions in government aid since the beginning of the financial crisis - money that was meant to get the banks to start lending money again.

'Heroic act'

The bank refused to comment on Reitsma's case. "We do not discuss individual cases for privacy reasons," a spokesperson said.

One person who doens't mind discussing the case is Tom Vilsack, president Barack Obama's Agriculture Secretary. Vilsack has left a message on Roxanne's voicemail, saying he had heard of Hans' case and wanted to express his sympathy.

Roxanne is planning to take a trip to Washington with her children and parents to visit Vilsack's office. She wants to keep the memory of her husband alive, she says. This is why she is telling her story. She wants the world to know that Hans was a respectable citizen and not a coward, as she has heard him called.

To Roxanne, her husband's suicide was "an heroic act".

"He stepped on a live grenade for us," she says. She means that by sacrificing himself he was trying to save his family. His death was a message to the bank: leave my family alone.

"He was saying: you betrayed me. Now let's see if you have the guts to go after my wife and seven kids." ... armer_Hans