Milking goes with the flow Farm: The work that supplies the midshipmen's table doesn't miss a beat despite the latest plan to shut down the Naval Academy's dairy farm.

April 14, 1997|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Ben Hamrick went to work at 3 a.m. yesterday, as usual. He used a tractor to scrape manure from the feed lots. He checked the herd for cows in heat. He mixed silage, corn, barley, roasted soybeans, cottonseed and alfalfa.

He dumped the concoction into feed troughs for the Holsteins of the U.S. Naval Academy, possibly the most controversial, most photographed, most written-about bovines in American history.

And he did his best to ignore the latest news -- that after 86 years, the Naval Academy is going to ask the permission of Congress to close its dairy farm next year.

"I don't like it," Hamrick said yesterday afternoon of last week's news. "Seems like they might really do it this time. But who knows?"

Hamrick's skepticism is understandable. After all, the first attempts to close the farm came shortly after he came to work here in 1962, a 17-year-old just out of high school in Smoot, W.Va.

Now he's 52, and the son and daughter he raised here have moved away and are raising his five grandchildren. He's seen a dozen reports that the farm would close come and go.

And still, the farm goes on, milking 125 cows every morning at 3 a.m. and every afternoon at 2 p.m., producing about 920 gallons of milk a day 365 days a year for the midshipmen's table.

"I've seen all this get built," Hamrick says, waving his arm at the spread of sheds and barns on 865 spectacularly pastoral acres surrounded by subdivisions in Gambrills. "I like living here. It's a whole lot better than being in the city."

Another headache

Now, once again, on top of the mind-numbing hours, the unpredictable weather, the dust of the feed bin and smelly slop of the exercise yards, Hamrick and his 13 fellow workers have to put up with another recurrent plague, one unique to Anne Arundel's last dairy farm: the media.

"It's a big media feeding frenzy," said Pete Peterson, the farm manager since 1982.

"I get so fed up with it. It just never stops," he said.

In the past few years, Peterson, 58, has watched television crews spook his cows, been misquoted by Business Week and heard Vice President Al Gore hold up this farm as an example of government waste. (The latest calculations show the academy could save $17,000 a year by buying its milk wholesale.)

He has answered more stupid questions of city-slicker reporters than he cares to remember.

Each new report that the farm might close sets off a new wave of media interest.

"I've seen it many times, and all it does is stir up the employees and make them worry about their jobs," said Peterson, who started running the farm as a Navy lieutenant commander and stayed on after retirement as a civilian.

A couple of workers actually left for other jobs because of such reports in the past, and recruiting replacements isn't easy. "We're not in an agricultural area," he said. "We're in a bedroom-community area."

Way back in 1963, the Maryland Farm Bureau was formally calling for the end of the farm, calling it a "waste of the taxpayers' money." County officials said then that the farm would be a perfect site for NASA's Washington-area headquarters; others proposed the land for the Government Printing Office, the Patent Office or a water-pollution laboratory.

Holsteins' insurance

But in 1967, L. Mendel Rivers, the South Carolina Democrat who headed the House Armed Services Committee, took a fancy to the farm and tacked onto a military appropriations bill a clause requiring the permission of Congress to close it.

President Lyndon Johnson, signing the bill as a demonstration against the Vietnam War surged past the White House, remarked tartly: "The Congress, which has given the Navy Department authority over the world's most powerful fleet, has withdrawn the department's authority over 380 cows."

Since then, the debate has regularly replayed.

Budget-watchers in Washington love the incongruity of the seagoing Navy and its landlubber cows and find irresistible cliches about "sacred cows" and "milking the taxpayers."

Arundel residents wary of more development and 4-H clubbers who learn their agriculture on the farm rise to defend it. The midshipmen, who use the farm only as a cross-country course and a parachute drop site, generally stay out of the argument.

As milkers Ernest Fannin and Steve Covington Jr. coaxed the cows into the parlor eight at a time for yesterday's afternoon milking, Washington budget spats seemed far away.

The gentle chug of the vacuum machine fell in and out of sync with the rock music coming from the radio in the corner.

Milk pulsed into eight big glass vessels.

31,000 days and counting

It was approximately the 31,000th consecutive day of milking the cows since the dairy was started in 1911 to guarantee the academy a safe milk supply after a rash of illness. And Pete Peterson was waxing almost sentimental about cows, a steadier breed than humans.

"Cows thrive on consistency -- the same feed, the same weather, the same music, the same people," Peterson said. "They're curious, but shy.

"Do I like them?" he puffs on a cigarette and ponders. "I guess I like them. They're the reason we're here."

Pub Date: 4/14/97

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