His 63-year affair with the fair

August 27, 2004|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

David Patrick remembers when the Maryland State Fair in Timonium was a different animal from the modern-day extravaganza of thousands of show animals - and swirling kiddie rides, traffic jams, rock bands and swimming pigs.

"In the '40s, York Road was just two lanes, the barns you see today were just sheds, and the judges' pavilion was on top of a dirt hill," said Patrick, 74, who still rises at 4 a.m. for the day's first milking of 200 cows at Maple Dell Farm in western Howard County.

But asked about the changes he has seen, he'll tell you they're fine with him.

"The midway guaranteed more crowds, more profit that could be used to make the fair bigger and better," Patrick said. "It was almost a necessity."

The fair opens today for an 11-day run, and the Lisbon dairy farmer is ready to be part of it all for the 63rd straight year.

He will show his top dairy cows and try to add to the wealth of blue ribbons that he and the two generations of family members who followed him into the show rings have accumulated.

Andy Cashman, the fair's assistant general manager, said Patrick might have the longest tenure of any livestock competitor in modern fair history.

"I was showing for 4-H since I was a kid, and I remember him back then," said Cashman. "There are a couple of folks who have been around for 50 years or more, but David Patrick is probably the longest-running competitor."

Patrick grew up on a farm, and by 17 he owned his first cow. Over the decades he has refined the art and science of raising prizewinning cattle into a life's pleasure.

"You either love it or you don't," Patrick said. "How blessed am I to love it and be still doing it after all these years."

The myriad attractions at this year's fair include conservative radio talk show host Sean Hannity, 40 rides and the Swifty Swine Pig Racing and Swimming show.

Patrick's cows will enter seven classes of competition for the Ayrshire breed, one noted as a good grazer and prodigious milk producer.

It's not so much the competition, said Patrick's wife of 50 years, Ann. It's more about tradition and pride in the farm her husband has dedicated himself to since leaving high school.

"He's a caring, giving person who will do anything for anyone," Ann Patrick said. "His spiritual faith is strong and allows him to endure running a huge dairy farm."

Maple Dell Farm sits off Interstate 70 in the rolling farmland near Lisbon. It's a cow-and-milk factory with three silos and four deep trenches in the ground used to store corn, alfalfa and barley grown by the Patricks for cattle feed.

Patrick's face and arms are darkened by his many days in the sun. He has a ready smile and a head full of salt-and-pepper hair. A midday snack usually consists of a glass of whole milk from one of his cows and a few Oreos.

This week, Patrick sat at his kitchen table in the family farmhouse - where he was born and which he says is a century old - and talked about his family, raising heifers, cows and bulls and the art of how to grab a judge's eye with a bovine beauty.

"I guess I was a draft dodger when World War II broke out because I had a farming deferment," Patrick said. "If I hadn't, dad would certainly have lost the farm."

To keep Maple Dell Farm and another 150-acre farming property off Old Frederick Road humming, he says, at one time or another he has enlisted most of the couple's seven children and many of their 12 grandchildren. His brother Jimmy, 67, works the dairy operation.

Patrick plants and grows hundreds of acres of corn, alfalfa and barley, used to feed the livestock, which also includes several hundred young heifers after they've gone off their mother's feedings. He and other farm workers milk the cows twice daily, at 4 a.m. and 4 p.m.

He also raises bulls for artificial insemination.

Showing his top cows is another matter. It is a fierce competition, requiring long hours and a realization that dairymen who stay at the top of their game in competition also breed better cows.

"There are people called `fitters' who get cows ready for show, and some make a pretty good living from doing only that," Patrick said.

That process begins with fitters clipping the entrants' hooves. "You don't want their feet too long or they will have a clompy, elongated walk that could detract from their overall score," he said. "A good judge can spot foot trouble."

Patrick said other considerations for a top cow are that "they can't be overweight. They have to look clean-boned and be sharp at the point of their shoulders." There are also strict guidelines for the cow's udders, leg symmetry and for a "long, dairy-looking face," he said.

One of the final touches, Patrick said, is when the fitter washes and trims the cow, shaping a thin line of hair, perhaps as short as one-quarter of an inch, along the cow's spine to the tail head. "It's sort of like a flattop," Patrick said.

As he prepares to enter another round seeking show honors for his best cows, Patrick spoke in reverent terms of his most recent favorites.

He said he captured a breed grand champion prize last year with a head-turning mahogany and white entry named Trident Song. In the early 1990s, one of his best was one named Sweet Pea.

"Now Sweet Pea, she was some cow," Patrick recalled, starting to smile.

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