A heifer is a gift that keeps on giving Anti-hunger group donates animals to needy families

July 12, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

GRANTSVILLE -- In a world of meaningless acronyms and complex regulations, there's something refreshingly straightforward about an anti-hunger program known as "The Heifer Project."

Hungry, but enterprising? Need help with your food budget?

Here, have a cow. Or a goat. In some countries, a yak or a water buffalo, whatever is indigenous.

Milk it, butcher it, but remember the basic Heifer Project tenet: You have to put back what you were given.

Since its inception 50 years ago, the Heifer Project has provided animals to needy families throughout the world. Last November, through a partnership with the Maryland Food Committee, the project made its way to Garrett County.

It began with four heifers, four goats and six families. Seven of the animals were impregnated, or thought to be, while the eighth, a goat, provided additional stud service as required.

A revolving loan fund helped with start-up costs, until the animals began paying for their keep with milk -- as much as 4 gallons a day from each heifer, 1 1/2 from the goats.

"Does it help? Oh my," said Mary Jo Hershberger, whose family of three makes ends meet by taking boarders from nearby colleges. "When the students were here, we were going through a gallon a day -- that's $2 on a good day. So say, $60 to $70 a month. The cost of keeping Millie [a goat] is far less, about $15."

The Hershbergers, like the other families in Maryland's Heifer Project, may not seem needy by urban standards. The families live in well-kept houses with enough land for livestock. But their apparent comfort is deceptive, made possible only by the area's low cost of living. Money is tight, and each family needs every penny it can squeeze from its food budget.

The chosen families also have a knack for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Jerry and Debbie Weimer, parents of seven children, built animal pens from discarded wooden pallets and used scrap materials to renovate their farmhouse. They raise pigs for other families.

Charlotte Smearman learned to make butter in a churn from her in-laws, and sells it for $3 a pound. Mrs. Hershberger, who had no experience with farm animals before the Heifer Project, is teaching herself how to make cheese. She also worked out a barter system for hay. "It's not the kind of thing that will make or break a family," said Mark Lancaster, who oversees the project for the Maryland Food Committee. "But it's the extra boost that will help them get started."

Heifer Project International was the brainchild of Dan West, an Indiana farmer who gave powdered milk to women and infants as part of the relief effort during the Spanish Civil War. The effort seemed shortsighted to Mr. West, for it perpetuated dependence.

A heifer, Mr. West decided, was a gift that would keep on giving. Once bred, it would produce milk for a family while producing more calves. The family then would give a female calf back to the program. "Passing on the gift," in Heifer Project parlance.

In 1942, a friend of Mr. West's donated the first heifer to a family, while a committee from the Church of the Brethren created the full-scale program. Two years later, the project began formally with the shipment of 18 heifers to Puerto Rico.

Since then, more than 1 million families in 110 countries have received livestock through the Heifer Project. Some of the animals were shipped overseas through Baltimore's harbor. Arkansas farmers were among the first United States recipients, soon followed by Kentucky and Tennessee.

But when the project finally came to Garrett County, people were skeptical. "They were afraid of it," said Jack Teats, a 4-H coordinator who was tapped for his expertise to serve on the Heifer Project's board. "You know, most of the time you don't get anything for nothing."

Purebred heifers cost about $1,000 while goats range from $250 to $300. Families who accept the animals pay all feed and sheltering costs. They also are required to keep detailed records, to ensure they keep the animals in good condition.

Each month, the "peer council" -- Heifer Project participants, Mr. Lancaster from the food committee, Mr. Teats and others who are donating their time -- meet to discuss the ongoing project. The families make virtually all the decisions, including who will receive the next generation of animals. (The waiting list is up to 20 families.) They use their combined buying power to purchase feed in bulk at a lower price.

The peer council also has handled unexpected problems. The Smearmans' heifer, for example, could not be bred because of a heart murmur. Charlotte and her husband, David Smearman Sr., sold the cow at auction and bought a Guernsey.

But they were out the money they had spent on feed for the first heifer. Neither the Heifer Project nor the Maryland Food Committee had discretionary funds to cover those costs. So the peer council decided to raffle off a pig to help the Smearmans.

"Watching the problem-solving is fascinating," Mrs. Hershberger said. In fact, the biggest problem facing the families is what to do with surplus milk. Even the Weimers, with seven children, end up donating the milk to other families, as do the Hershbergers.

And, as in any family, the children sometimes don't appreciate what they have. On a beautiful July morning, Laura Weimer, 2, stood in her family's kitchen. The refrigerator was full of foamy cow's and goat's milk. The scent of fresh-baked cookies wafted on the breeze.

"Mom," she said plaintively, tugging at her mother's shirttail, "I want a Pepsi."

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