Former suburbanite, wife win dairy farming award

April 25, 1994|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Sun Staff Writer

In many ways, John T. Mayer doesn't fit the stereotypical profile of a dairy farmer.

A 1983 graduate of what now is Frostburg State University with degrees in economics and business administration, Mr. Mayer -- who just won the Atlantic Dairy Cooperative's Outstanding Young Cooperator title with his wife, Julie -- grew up in suburban Damascus.

His father still owns and operates a sign company near College Park. His mother is a retired government accountant.

But dairy farming and a determination to succeed are in his blood. As a child, Mr. Mayer, 33, fell in love with his grandfather's Howard County farm and knew that someday he would lead a similar life. Today, he and his wife farm 279 acres and milk 70 cows on their farm just shy of the Carroll County line in Taneytown, Frederick County.

"For most young farmers, their parents farm and it just comes down the line," said Mrs. Mayer, who grew up in West Virginia near Williamsport, Md. "His father's not into it. He comes out maybe once a year."

"I wouldn't have been able to do it if I didn't have as much help as I did coming out here," said Mr. Mayer, who began farming in 1984 when his grandparents' farm was put up for rent. The farm had been sold when his grandfather died in 1972.

"My neighbor [Frederick Roelecke] is like my father up here," he said, noting that Mr. Roelecke often lends him equipment and offers advice day or night.

Even when Mr. Mayer recently got stuck in the middle of his alfalfa field at 10 p.m., while he was removing the mobile home the family lived in for several years, his neighbor was there to help.

"Within 10 minutes, he had sent a tractor over to get me out," Mr. Mayer said. "In another [business] setting, I wouldn't have that."

But much of Mr. Mayer's success can be attributed to hard work and strong business planning. After graduating from Frostburg, Mr. Mayer worked as a commodities analyst for about a year and took dairy science classes at the University of Maryland.

"I knew that someday I would go back," he said of farming. "Then the home farm came up for rent. I didn't have Julie or the kids then, so I knew that if I was going to fall down, now was the time to do it."

He and Mrs. Mayer met in December 1984 and were married 10 months later. They now have two children, Ashley, 8, and Sean, )) who will soon be 4.

"When I met him, I knew I was going to marry that boy," said Mrs. Mayer, recalling their courtship.

At the time, Mr. Mayer was laying the groundwork for his future herd, artificially breeding heifers and selling some of his stock to other dairy farmers. He also would "cow-sit" for farmers who went on vacation to gain practical experience and advice.

"I'd ask them all how to get started in the business," Mr. Mayer said.

Getting started

In 1988, the couple bought their farm and started working full time on Mr. Mayer's dream.

"When we bought the farm, we talked about it and I knew if I said no he'd never be happy," Mrs. Mayer said. "So, I said, 'If we're going to do it, let's do it.' "

That leap of faith has led to the Outstanding Young Cooperator award in a contest designed to introduce young dairy farmers to Atlantic cooperative and encourage them to participate.

Atlantic Dairy Cooperative represents more than 3,500 dairy farm families in the mid-Atlantic states.

PD The competition consists of a written application, an on-farm in

spection, a personal interview with three judges and a five-minute impromptu speech -- for which the couple had 20 minutes to prepare.

The Mayers spoke on why the government should be involved in the dairy industry through price supports and milk commissions.

Price supports

"Milk is different from any other product," Mr. Mayer said, recalling what he told the group. "It's fluid, and you only have three or four days before it has to be processed."

"You can't store it until the prices get better," Mrs. Mayer added.

In addition, a dairy farmer has high fixed costs, such as feed and equipment maintenance, Mr. Mayer said. Most dairy farmers have from $500,000 to $1 million in equity in their farm and equipment, he said.

Dairy farmers can only tinker so much with their feed costs when milk prices drop, Mr. Mayer said. As lower milk prices begin to cut into profits, many farmers will add another cow to bring in more money. The result is a still larger pool of milk that drives prices down further.

"It's a snowball effect, just tumbling down the hill," he said. "That's why the government got involved in the '30s and '40s, to stabilize prices."

Maryland's proposal for a milk commission, which was pulled for summer study by this year's General Assembly, sounds reasonable, Mr. Mayer said. But he doubts dairy farmers statewide will see one in the near future.

"In Pennsylvania, it's worked," Mr. Mayer said. "But [Gov. William Donald] Schaefer said no. It will probably come about, but we'll need a change in administration first. From what I hear, it's dead."

The interview stage of the contest required the Mayers to talk

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