Naval Academy's dairy farm may close School seeks approval of Congress to shut 86-year-old operation

April 10, 1997|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

For decades, the U.S. Naval Academy has had the rarest of twin responsibilities -- midshipmen and milk cows.

Now, academy leaders are about to quit the school's quirky moonlighting. Navy officials announced yesterday that they will close the Naval Academy Dairy Farm -- next year if Congress lets them -- and end a tradition at an institution that holds history dear.

The reason is simple. There's no money in milk. And a working farm, no matter how storied, has little value for an academy that trains 4,000 midshipmen each year in the basics of nuclear propulsion, the definition of apparent wind, and the rigors of life in the gray-hull Navy.

"We are not an agricultural school," said Capt. Tom Jurkowsky, an academy spokesman. "We don't have any business being in the milk and dairy business."

But there are kinks to work out if the 86-year-old dairy is to close before Adm. Charles R. Larson retires as the academy's superintendent next year.

First, Congress must pass a bill to allow the academy to decide on its own what to do with the dairy farm. Other questions need answers, too. For example, what do you do with 300 Holsteins? (Auction them off.) And what will become of 856 acres of prime land in the middle of fast-growing west Anne Arundel?

Everybody has thoughts on that.

Local 4-H Clubs are worried that the demise of Anne Arundel's last dairy farm could mean no milking lessons for young members. The PGA Tour called last week -- great place for a golf course.

Environmentalists want to make sure nothing is built on the land near Gambrills that would pollute several streams that feed the Severn and Patuxent rivers. A developer called yesterday with an offer to build "affordable housing" on the coveted real estate.

"Every school kid in Anne Arundel County used to go up there and see the cows, and the bulls and critters," said Jim Martin of the Severn River Association, the county's leading environmental group. "We'll miss the farm."

Two years ago, academy officials proposed selling the farm to golf course developers, angering neighbors who relish the rural atmosphere the farm provides.

"The dairy farm has always been a very good neighbor, and we hate to lose it," said Hal Counihan, president of the Committee to Save the Dairy Farm. "However, we recognize it doesn't belong to us. Our concern last time around was that we weren't being included."

This time, academy officials have briefed the Board of Visitors, the state's congressional delegation, and Anne Arundel planners. On Sunday, Larson spoke to a group of Gambrills homeowners associations gathered at his request on the academy grounds. He noted in opening comments that no homebuilders or golf course developers had been invited.

Options include leasing the land to a farmer, dairy company, or to the county for parkland. "What we'd like to do is basically farm it," Jurkowsky said. "To keep it green, pristine and open."

Jurkowsky said the academy could turn the land over to the federal General Services Administration, which is responsible for selling superfluous government assets. But, he said, "that could result in a sale to developers, and we know that's not what the community wants."

No dairy farm also means the end of one of the academy's trademark idiosyncrasies: The blue-and-gold milk cartons and ice cream containers on every table at King Hall, where midshipmen dine.

The tradition dates to 1911 when the academy started the dairy farm with a $40,000 loan from the Midshipmen Store. Typhoid-infected commercial milk made midshipmen sick months earlier, and academy leaders wanted to ensure a safe future supply. Congress got in the act in the following years, lending the academy $255,000 to expand the dairy.

Today, the economics don't make sense -- even to the federal government. Vice President Al Gore used the dairy two years ago to illustrate government waste.

The farm produces 1,000 gallons of milk a day, and the academy, the dairy's only customer, buys it for 40 to 50 cents more per gallon than commercial milk. The academy spent $1.1 million on the dairy's products last year, about $17,000 more than they would have at a wholesale market.

Academy officials will now draw up a business plan, a tool to convince Congress that the time is right to close the farm. But they estimate that shutting down the 15-person operation would save the academy $260,000, money that could be used to buy better food for the midshipmen. Any income from leasing the land would go toward clubs and activities for midshipmen.

"People sometimes resist change," Jurkowsky said. "But it's the right thing to do."

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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