A Place to Land: Experiences of Their Immigrant Families Inspire Young Farmers to Build their Own American Dream

Aug 28, 2023

By Allison Jenkins

Putting down permanent roots sometimes means uprooting first. The families of Catlin Young and Skyler de Regt know this reality all too well.

Young’s maternal grandparents, Louise and Henry Birrell, operated a large farm in Zimbabwe, Africa, before fleeing in 1983 amid political strife. De Regt’s parents hail from the Netherlands, relocating to the United States in 1987 to start a row-crop operation.

It takes courage, sacrifice and determination to leave everything familiar for the chance at a better life in a foreign land. Those lessons aren’t lost on Young and de Regt as they start their own farming journeys.

Catlin Young, an agribusiness graduate of Murray State University, now works on the University of Kentucky’s research farm while raising soybeans and Katahdin sheep on her own farm in Princeton, Kentucky, where her family settled after leaving Zimbabwe in 1983. Photo Credit: Tim Thornberry

“My grandparents basically came to the United States with nothing,” Young says. “It makes me want to push harder toward my goals because I see what they did for themselves. You rise from what you’ve been through and grow to be better.”

Young’s family settled in Princeton, Kentucky after leaving Zimbabwe, which had been a British colony before gaining independence from white minority rule in 1980. In the conflict that followed, many of Zimbabwe’s citizens—including Young’s grandparents; mother, Elaine; and uncle, Ivan—decided to emigrate rather than face an uncertain future.

Once in America, the Birrells eventually established Lively H Farms, where they raise cattle, row crops and hay. The farm has been training grounds for Young, who works alongside her grandfather, great-uncle and fiancé.

“Papa is my role model,” says Young, who shares her farming journey through a blog, “A Grower’s Granddaughter.” “He had to work hard to get to where he is, and he’s always pushed me to do more than I thought I could do.”

“I am thankful for my family and our heritage,” she says. “I’m careful with the questions I ask my Papa because when he left, Zimbabwe was a bad place. Even so, I would love to see it for myself. After all, it’s part of who I am.”

Dutch in the delta

Unlike Young, Skyler de Regt has regularly visited his ancestral home in the Netherlands, where many of his relatives still reside. His parents, Marjan and Jan, left their native country under much different circumstances than Young’s grandparents.

Skyler de Regt is inspired to carry on his family’s farm legacy. His parents left the Netherlands in 1987 to start a row-crop operation in the United States. Pictured: Skylar with his mother, Marjan. Photo Credit: MSU Extension Service/Kat Lawrence (Photo by MSU Extension Service/Kat Lawrence)

“They were looking for a new opportunity. They both grew up on farms, but they weren’t big enough to support multiple families,” de Regt says. “A family member had some land in America, so they packed up and moved from Holland to Hollandale, Mississippi. They planned to go back in three years, but they stayed.”

Their Forrest City Farms consists of 3,200 acres, the majority planted in soybeans. Skyler, 28, returned to the operation full time in 2020 after earning degrees in agribusiness from Mississippi State University and working two years at FCS Financial. He and his wife, Ashlyn, recently moved back to the farm.

“We still farm the same amount of acreage that my parents farmed when they came over here,” de Regt says. “Sometimes I wonder how the heck they did it. It can be overwhelming to get everything done today, and yet they did it in 1987 with hardly any experience.”

In 2015, de Regt had the chance to get a firsthand view of agriculture in the Netherlands, participating in a six-week internship on a friend’s farm. He described it as “a different world,” adding that the experience strengthened his admiration for his parents and his desire to carry on the legacy they’ve built here in America.

“There’s pride in knowing they started this farm from nothing,” de Regt says. “Seeing how hard they’ve worked makes me want to keep it going. It’s a very rewarding way of life.”