Gerda van Dorp, a Dutch cheese farmer in the town of Fijnaart, in the south of the country, woke up on March 29 to a mostly empty cheese storage room. Overnight, unknown thieves had taken from her shelves 161 wheels of cheese, weighing 3,500 pounds, that had taken months to make and mature.
The value: about $23,000.
“It was like waking up in a movie,” said van Dorp, who runs her business and farm together with her husband, Joost.
Cheese from similar robberies in 2016 was later located in Eastern Europe, said Theo Dekker, chairman of an interest group for Dutch dairy farmers. The incident has left some farmers on edge, and van Dorp said that several other farmers had reached out to her for support.
The thieves also stole her trailer and two wheelbarrows from the farm, police said, presumably to transport the cheese to a bus or a truck. (A wheel of cheese is roughly 10 kilos, or 22 pounds.) Police said they recovered the trailer and the wheelbarrows nearby.
Van Dorp guessed that whoever stole the cheese must have been watching her farm, where she lives with her husband and two children, for a while. The incident happened while the gate to the property was left open for an overnight milk delivery.
Nobody has been arrested in the case, police said, and an investigation is ongoing.
Selling the cheese inside the Netherlands might be difficult. Every wheel of cheese has its own serial number, and farms add their logos to it as well to indicate where it was made — and to make the products easily traced.
“Thankfully this doesn’t happen often, but we’re worried about how professional this has become,” said Dekker, who is a dairy farmer himself. “These people come at night and take everything with brute force. It’s almost like organized crime.”
“They know what they’re doing,” he said. “That scares us.”
Prices of consumer goods in the Netherlands have risen, as they have elsewhere in the world. They were up 9.7% in March compared with a year before, reaching their highest levels since 1976, according to Statistics Netherlands, a Dutch governmental institution that tracks data.
The Netherlands, home to 1.6 million cows (and over 17 million people), is a major producer of dairy, of which about two-thirds is exported, according to the Dutch Dairy Association. In 2020, the Netherlands exported 7.5 billion euros (about $8.1 billion) worth of dairy products.
Dekker said he had warned the 290 members of the interest group he leads to be extra vigilant, to install cameras and to double check their locks before going to bed. In total, the Netherlands, a major producer of cheese and other dairy products, counts 500 farms that make cheese and other products from the animals they own, he said.
When the Netherlands saw similar robberies some years ago, Dekker said that he had seen security footage of the thefts and that he had been shocked by the speed and the force used by the thieves. At the time, Dutch newspaper NRC estimated that in 2015, close to 19,000 pounds of cheese had been stolen.
Still, this is a special case, said Mireille Aalders, a police spokesperson. “I know that a while ago, batches of cheese were stolen around the country, but this isn’t the kind of incident that happens weekly or monthly,” she said. “It’s pretty unique.”
The problem isn’t limited to the Netherlands. Italy’s precious Parmesan cheese is a frequent target, including a daring nighttime heist of 25,000 pounds in 2018.
Wisconsin has its own issues with what one cheese seller dubbed “cheese pirates.” In 2016, someone made off with more than 20,000 pounds of cheese, valued at more than $46,000, when an unmarked trailer was stolen from a parking lot in Oak Creek.
A big robbery like the one at van Dorp’s farm isn’t just unfortunate from a monetary standpoint, Dekker said. For many of the farmers, who make cheese from milk from their own farm animals and often live on the same property, it feels personal.
“There’s a bit of emotion involved,” Dekker said. “These people put passion and love into their work.”