David Patrick struck the equivalent of the lottery for a dairy farmer this month when he made almost $17,000 more than usual for his cows' monthly output of 330,000 pounds of milk.
But subtract his costs for hauling the milk and for feeding his 175 cows, and barely enough remains for the Lisbon farmer to break even. For dairy farmers -- here and elsewhere -- even when times are good, they're bad.
"The last time prices got this high was back in the '80s," says Patrick, 66, who runs his 1,000-acre farm with his brother. "Now we've got a more sophisticated [milking] parlor with three times as much in costs -- but the price has stayed the same."
Such economics have driven the number of dairy farms in Howard County down from more than 600 in the 1940s, when the county had only about 17,000 residents, to eight farms now.
Not all of the remaining eight are expected to last the next five years, county and state agricultural experts -- and the dairy farmers themselves -- say.
Nationwide, the number of dairy farms fell 5.3 percent in the first seven months of this year, according to the American Farm Bureau. The number of Maryland dairy farmers declined 5.7 percent during the same period.
In Howard County, where dairy farms once reigned, they continue to be pressured by rising costs, spreading development and the aging of those who work on farms.
"Years ago, everybody around you was farming their land," says Gene Iager, who farms 700 acres and raises 400 cows in Fulton. "Now you've got the guy across the street who complains about the fertilizer you spread or the smell of your cows' manure."
Adds Martha Clark, who has 65 dairy cows on her 800-acre farm in Glenelg: "Each generation finds it harder and harder to
maintain the status quo of milking cows.
"It's a doom-and-gloom story for most people and their dairy farms -- either it's age, health or they just can't keep up with the costs," she says.
A recent recommendation by a state task force to the state legislature to create a milk-price support system to help dairy farmers stay in business is greeted skeptically by county farmers.
Under the price-support plan, Lewis R. Riley, the state agriculture secretary, would have the authority to set minimum prices on milk for farmers, wholesalers and retailers. A seven-member advisory group, composed of four consumers, a farmer, a processor and a retailer would guide him.
L The plan would have to be approved by the state legislature.
But some Howard County farmers said that such price-setting would yield them only another 20 to 30 cents per 100 pounds of milk, not enough to save a farmer facing bankruptcy.
Howard farmers now average about $13 for each 100 pounds of milk, though last month that was up to $17.28 because of a national grain shortage. Pennsylvania and Virginia farmers, who have milk-price support systems, tend to get about 30 to 40 cents more than Maryland farmers, say farmers and agricultural specialists.
Without price setting, however, agricultural specialists predict the farmers producing 1.3 billion pounds of milk each year in Maryland will move out of state.
Most local farmers who sell their dairy cows turn to cash crops. Stanley Pickett and his wife, Liann, who sold their dairy herd of 60 milking cows in July, now depend on their 115 acres of hay, corn and alfalfa in Poplar Springs for income instead of feed for their cows. "With help coming and going and us getting older, it kept getting harder to upkeep the dairy operation," says Liann Pickett. "But when you've been in it as long as we have, it's hard to give it up.
"The first few days without the cows," she says, "Stanley sat out on the porch for hours just staring out across the country."
With a declining number of dairy farmers in Howard, the average size of county farmers' herds has more than doubled since the 1940s, and the average production per cow has increased by an estimated 50 percent, says John Wysong, a dairy specialist at the University of Maryland at College Park.
Those who have stuck with dairy farming say the rewards are not in the money, but in the satisfaction of being one's own boss and working outdoors.
For David and Jimmy Patrick, each day begins about 4 a.m., when they begin milking their 175 cows.
After 3 1/2 hours, the morning milking is done; it resumes again about 3 p.m. In between, fields of corn, wheat and soybeans must be tended. That leaves little time, if any, for vacations, and less time for social events.
"We choose to be farmers, and that means doing all the work regardless of the time," says David Patrick as he milks one of his cows. "Most people can end their jobs at 5 p.m. on a Friday, go home and not have to think about it anymore.
"We're constantly worrying about the animals," he says. "It doesn't end."