Naval Academy leases farm to organic dairy producer, ensuring land remains rural

Colorado company agrees to 10-year deal

June 29, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

The Naval Academy announced yesterday that it will lease the 865-acre Anne Arundel County farm it has run since 1911 to the nation's largest producer of organic dairy products.

The decision to sign the 10-year lease with Boulder, Colo.-based Horizon Organic Dairy came after several years of agonizing about how to dispose of one of the academy's more unusual holdings. The Navy launched the Gambrills dairy operation to provide midshipmen a safe source of milk during a typhoid outbreak, and continued farming until last year.

With cheaper, commercially produced milk available, academy officials announced last summer that they were no longer going to be involved in dairy farming, a business that seemed far adrift from the Navy's mission.

"The Naval Academy is set up to train young men to defend the country, not to understand the complexities of an organic dairy operation," state Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a 1st District Republican, said yesterday. "When they got the green light [from Congress], they were fairly anxious to get out of the perceived burden of running a modern dairy operation."

But it wasn't so easy to sell the farm.

Local residents feared that the sizable parcel would be snapped up by developers and that a popular 4-H Club program would be shut down, leaving heartbroken youngsters to watch as the cattle were marched to slaughter.

Gilchrest stepped in, drafting legislation that required the land be preserved "consistent with farming and rural practices," and the academy began seeking interested bidders to take over management of the land.

Horizon, a 7-year-old company that has been looking to expand its operations in Maryland, made a bid. As part of the agreement, the company pledged to continue the 4-H program, and offered to build an educational center to spread the word about organic farming.

"We're hoping to establish something like a living-history farm, so students, classroom groups, families and other farmers can learn about organic dairy farming," said Liz Marr, Horizon's manager of consumer communications.

Operating as an organic farm requires a lengthy transition, Marr said. For a crop to be certified as organic, the land must be free of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers for three years. Horizon has 556 milking cows on more than 300 acres in Kent County. It plans to add about 30 cattle on the academy land until the farm can produce organic crops to feed a larger herd.

While the task of organic farming is intensive, the chemical-free products have proved appealing to health-conscious consumers. The publicly traded company reported $49.4 million in sales last year and $486,000 in profits.

Horizon signed a 10-year lease with the academy, with options for two five-year extensions, Marr said. The first year of the lease is for $84,265, which will increase in steps over 10 years to $104,439.

The proceeds of the deal will fund a variety of services for midshipmen, who have been paying inflated milk prices for years to support the dairy operation.

"We are very confident Horizon Dairy will do an excellent job in managing the dairy farm," said Vice Adm. John Ryan, the academy's superintendent, in a prepared statement.

The agreement "represents the best business decision for the academy and will ensure the land remains open, green and rural in character," he said.

Pub Date: 6/29/99

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