The Appealing Rhythms Of Farm Life

May 15, 1994|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Staff Writer

The door of the milking barn rattles open at dawn, alerting the herd at Rocky Glade Farms.

Cows, 160 of them, have gathered outside, languidly chewing on whatever cows chew before breakfast, their breath billowing into the cool spring air.

They look like chubby customers waiting for a bank to open. Mothers, daughters and cousins carrying liquid assets.

Nevin Hildebrand, 33, peers first at the herd, then at the tree line, as he enjoys the sunrise on his family's 230-acre farm an hour's drive west of Baltimore.

"It's the kind of morning a farmer likes to wake up to," he says.

The Hildebrand spread is a 1950s Saturday Evening Post cover come to life, a few hundred yards off Main Street in Woodsboro, Frederick County.

A stampede of economic factors -- including lower per-person consumption of milk and higher production per cow -- has nearly halved the number of Maryland dairy farms, from 2,500 in 1982 to 1,300 last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But the Hildebrand farm is not likely to go under. The family seems glued to the soil, like the 50-foot elm tree in the middle of the wheat field. The rhythms of farm life appeal to the Hildebrands.

Nevin pats a cow on the haunches. "You feel like you accomplish something every day. How many people can say that? You work at a desk job, you're putting in time. Here, you can say, 'I helped bring this calf into the world.' "

Hildebrands have farmed at the foot of the Catoctin Mountains for more than half a century. Their kinfolk are buried just over a knoll, at the end of gravelly Hildebrand Lane. A nearby pasture holds the graves of their favorite milk cows.

LeRoy Hildebrand, 69, the owner and patriarch, has a wife, three sons, a daughter, seven grandchildren and the complete works of both Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour.

Two sons, Nevin and Marlin, run the farm now, with the help of LeRoy's younger brother Henry, a retired trucker who lives in Carroll County, and a hired hand, Jake Fogle. LeRoy still handles the paperwork for the farm. His wife, Ellen, a deeply religious woman, does all the cooking and sometimes helps feed the calves.

Encroaching suburbia

From the front porch of his 18th-century red brick farmhouse, LeRoy surveys a crop of wheat, 45 acres of it, planted in the fall. "Looks nice," he murmurs, as a breeze transforms the green rows into ocean waves.

LeRoy shifts restlessly in his chair. Suburbia is closing in, he says, and that irks him more than the aches and pains from years of lifting newborn calves and removing big limestone rocks from his fields.

An 18-hole public golf course went in recently beside a pasture; now the cows watch errant drives go whizzing by. Family farms (( often succumb because the work is hard, the young want a different way of life, and developers are eager to acquire the land.

Selling his farm could make LeRoy a wealthy man. But he doesn't want change, either for the Hildebrands -- five generations have lived and worked here -- or for Woodsboro.

"People come up here to get away to the country, then they complain that there's nothing to do," he says. "Or they fuss

about the smell of the cows. I don't mind it."

Close to the homestead

LeRoy's offspring have stayed close to the homestead. Nevin and his wife built a house adjacent to the farm. (Rather than clear the land of scrub himself, Nevin turned a herd of goats loose for several weeks. Farm wisdom at its best.)

Marlin and his family live in a 200-year-old house within shouting distance of LeRoy's. Shelbia, the daughter, built a new home on another corner of the farm. Son Gary lives a mile away, on a dairy farm he rents and works himself.

The focus of Rocky Glade Farms is the milking barn, which LeRoy and his father built in 1941, with lumber they cut from nearby woods.

Today the farm has 160 mature cows, milked twice a day, and 140 calves and heifers -- a farm team waiting to join the main herd of milk producers.

About 6 a.m., Nevin begins herding cows into the milking parlor, 14 at a time.

"C'mon girls, let's go," he says, nudging the balky ones gently with a walking cane. They lumber in as if on cue; some have been doing this for 10 years or more.

They take their places in elevated milking stalls. Nevin and Jake spray the udders with antiseptic, then attach mechanized cups that draw 25 or more pounds of milk from each cow with a gentle pulsation and a whooshing sound.

The dairy farmers never see their product these days. The milk goes through tubes and pipes and into a steel tank in an adjacent room. A truck comes every two days and picks up 13,000 pounds, to be processed and pasteurized.

Nevin is president of the Frederick County Young Farmers and one of the youngest board members of the Frederick County Farm Bureau.

He attended a Farm Bureau meeting in Annapolis not long ago. "If I had to drive that every day, I'd go insane," he says.

Know your employees

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