Academy relieved of dairy duty Act gives naval school option to lease farm

November 20, 1997|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

The 856-acre dairy farm that has provided milk and ice cream to nearly half a million midshipmen at the Naval Academy could soon return to civilian duty now that Congress has given the Navy the option to unload the costly luxury.

Tucked deep in the National Defense Authorization Act signed late Tuesday by President Clinton was a provision to allow the Naval Academy to stop operating the controversial farm, to begin buying its milk from wholesalers and to lease the land if it wants to.

But developers need not apply. The law requires the farm to retain its "rural and agricultural state."

Unlike students at the Army and Air Force academies, midshipmen at the Naval Academy since 1911 have topped off their coffee and soaked their breakfast cereal with milk from their own farm, whose 300 cows provide nearly 1,000 gallons of milk a day to the academy.

In recent years, the Navy has been criticized for wasting money on such agricultural moonlighting. The farm costs $1.2 million a year to operate, and Vice President Al Gore once touted it as a prime example of government waste.

For the most part, Academy officials have agreed that they could survive -- and, indeed, save $260,000 to $340,000 a year -- without the farm.

But, they maintained, their hands were tied by a 1968 congressional mandate that has forced the academy to keep milking its cows -- until Congress said otherwise.

"We've been wanting to get out of the dairy business, but the law said we couldn't do it without approval from Congress," said academy spokesman Capt. Tom Jurkowsky.

This year, academy officials asked Congress for that approval. The law signed Tuesday hands the Navy the key to do that. However, academy officials said they're not about to start selling off cows. Not yet.

First, they will conduct a survey of commercial milk prices to determine whether the academy can save money by buying its milk wholesale, academy officials said yesterday. That was the case a year ago, when milk from the academy's farm cost about 50 cents more per gallon than commercial milk -- about $17,000 more per year than wholesale.

Once the survey is complete, the academy will decide whether to seek bids from milk suppliers, a process that could take six months or more.

"We're still a ways away," Jurkowsky said. "But if we find we can do it just as economically ourselves, we would certainly consider keeping the farm."

The outcome of the farm has implications far beyond midshipmen's breakfast tables. The farm is one of the biggest chunks of undeveloped land in rapidly growing Anne Arundel County.

Three years ago, the academy considered turning the farm into a golf course and spent $7,000 on a feasibility study. But that option was dropped, opening the door to others who have been ogling the prime real estate.

Academy officials and members of its Board of Visitors recently met with a University of Maryland professor interested in using the site for an agricultural research center and with Anne Arundel County officials interested in turning it into a massive public recreation facility with ball fields, bike trails, swimming pools and horse stables.

A third option is to allow a private operator to continue running the dairy farm.

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a 1st District Republican who sits on the Board of Visitors, the academy's governing board, said he recently met with Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton to seek his support for keeping the land as a buffer of green in a part of the state that continues to be developed.

"The community really wants it to remain a dairy farm," Gilchrest said. "But now it's in the Navy's lap. At least the Naval Academy can now go out and buy milk wherever it wants."

Regardless of who takes control of the farm, the Naval Academy said it is committed to keeping the farm as open space.

"We are committed to keeping that land open, to keeping it green, to maintaining that cultural ambience," Jurkowsky said.

Indeed, the provision signed into law Tuesday states that the Navy can terminate its dairy operations but can't sell the property. The farm, created to ensure a safe milk supply after midshipmen became ill during a typhoid epidemic, produces about 700 to 1,000 gallons of milk a day for the midshipmen's tables.

The milk and the academy's ice cream -- rumored to be better than anything found in the grocery freezer -- are served in blue-and-gold cartons on the tables of King Hall, where midshipmen dine.

Pub Date: 11/20/97

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