Reprieve for cows gladdens 4-H'ers Dairy: The Naval Academy has tentatively agreed to delay closure of its dairy farm and spare half of the 4-H'ers' beloved cows.

July 22, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Until last week, the pending closure of the Naval Academy's dairy farm forebode a 4-H'er nightmare: 140 cows, sold at auction, most likely to folks in the hamburger business.

But an 11th-hour brainstorming session -- ironically, at a McDonald's -- has resulted in a tentative agreement to save up to half of the academy's herd. If it gains final approval from the academy, the agreement will keep alive an Anne Arundel County 4-H dairy program that's been run on the 865-acre Gambrills farm since 1992.

The flurry of maneuvers means 4-H members such as Rebecca Pritchett, 9, of Elkridge, likely won't be separated from the heifers they've cared for in recent months. Rebecca had even written to President Clinton, asking him to help save her heifer, Sugar.

"I love my cow very much," she wrote.

Help came not from Clinton, but from Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a 1st District Republican, who sponsored last week's brainstorming session with dairy farmers from his native Eastern Shore.

"I just think we've been losing too many farms," Gilchrest said, explaining his reasoning for trying to broker last-minute concessions from academy officials.

After a tour of the dairy operation last week, Gilchrest's entourage stopped at a local McDonald's to draw up a proposal to save some of the cows -- and potentially the entire farm. Gilchrest made his proposal Friday in a phone conversation with the academy superintendent, Vice Adm. John R. Ryan, who agreed to let 50 to 70 cows remain at the dairy farm for another year.

The academy declined to discuss the latest twist in the dairy farm saga.

"I'll confirm that Vice Admiral Ryan took a call from Representative Gilchrest," academy spokesman Cmdr. Mike Brady said, but he declined to discuss details of that conversation.

Gilchrest said, "Basically, Ryan accepted the agreement." Gilchrest said it would cost about $120,000 to keep the 4-H cows for a year and that he'd gotten preliminary support from members of the House Agriculture Committee and agriculture appropriations subcommittee for the funding.

The academy established the farm in 1911 to provide midshipmen a safe source of milk when typhoid was tainting commercially produced milk. The academy tried to sell the farm in the 1960s, but was thwarted by an act of Congress that forced it to continue farming as a "morale building asset."

Two decades later, the farm's high-priced milk was ridiculed as an example of wasted tax dollars. Last year, Congress overturned its earlier mandate. Then, earlier this month, the academy announced it would stop milking cows on Aug. 10 and start buying cheaper, commercially produced milk.

"We shouldn't be in a business we don't belong in," said Syd W. Rodenbarger, director of the academy's nonappropriated funds programs, which includes the farm.

Rodenbarger said money saved on milk would be used to buy more fruits and vegetables and better meats and other foods for midshipmen. "This is all about the midshipmen, it's about nothing else," he said.

While all that was good news for the academy, the bad news only recently began to sink in for the employees of the farm (who'd lose their jobs) and for the 4-H members (who'd lose their cows).

The county's 4-H program started six years ago with two youths. It now has 40 members who lease a cow, care for it and clean it, and take it to fairs and judging contests.

Sunday, many of the members showed their cows at the Kent County Fair.

"It keeps them off the streets and out of the malls," said 4-H Director Steve Covington Jr., whose main job is managing the academy's herd of cows.

Covington said many 4-H members had planned to attend the auction of the academy's cows in hopes of bidding for the cow they had adopted.

"They were absolutely upset," Covington said.

While he's happy about the reprieve for the 4-H program, he's not happy about losing his job at the farm after 17 years.

Thirteen people work on the farm, all of whom live rent-free with PTC their families on the property. All but two will be fired in the next few months. Those two will be kept on to tend to the corn, soybean and alfalfa crops.

Gilchrest has asked Ryan to also keep Covington as manager of the 50 to 70 4-H cows, but those details are not yet worked out.

The academy has not decided what to do with its 865 acres.

Gilchrest is urging the academy to lease the property to someone -- such as Covington, who has expressed an interest in taking over the operation -- who could turn the farm into a private dairy farm, possibly for organic milk, which Gilchrest said is a growing market.

"I'm going to do all I can to continue a dairy operation on that piece of property, because I think it's important," he said. "My real intent here is to not lose one more farm in Maryland."

Pub Date: 7/22/98

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