Burton on the Bay:

When Navy Court-Martials Its Cows ...

Maryland Marches to Development's Drumbeat

Maybe a cow can't jump over the moon, though I've seen a few of them make it over some fences while in a frolicking mood. But one obstacle the cows of the U.S. Naval Academy Dairy Farm at Gambrills couldn't overcome is the decision by the top brass to give up its milk operation.

Details of the transition are somewhat muddled at this point, but it appears there won't be many moos from Gambrills after the Navy closes its 865-acre farm and disposes of its herd of about 300 and its milking equipment.

Apparently milk will be purchased from a Frederick County dairy operation at a savings of about 25 cents a gallon.

A mandate from Congress insists the property remain rural and agricultural, which is reassuring - until one realizes a previous mandate from Congress dating decades back and later reaffirmed insisted the milking machines at the farm keep churning out 700 to 1,000 gallons of milk daily for the sailors. Could Congress change its mind again?


Look Who's Going Under

Just about every time a Maryland farm operation of any kind goes out of business, tradition goes down the drain. Developers can't resist large tracts of land, especially in such counties as Anne Arundel, Calvert, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery, Carroll, Harford and Prince Georges - and increasingly so on the Eastern Shore.

Yet what's the farmer to do? For the love of the land, stay in business, work ungodly hours for marginal if any profit, assume awesome debt, then eventually go broke? Or give up the land before being overwhelmed, put the money from the sale in the bank, retire or, at least, get a less demanding regular job with more security and benefits?

Small farmers ---whether into vegetables, grains, beef, wool, milk or whatever -- are on the way out, and not far behind are those sandwiched between the small and the large. A way of life is disappearing because in farming, as in many other "businesses," you've gotta be big, real big to survive.

No room for the little guy anymore.

It takes big operations to afford the big, efficient and expensive farm machinery needed to remain competitive, to turn a profit, to pay taxes on the land, to stay in business. Among them all, the dairy farmer is probably the hardest hit.

Big dairy interests have taken over, and the little farmer can't compete. Conglomerates rule, and with few complaints from other than small farm operations. People - including Navy brass with all the scrambled eggs on their visors and Pentagon watchdogs - want their milk as cheap as they can get it.

When Embassy Dairy's milk operation at Waldorf went under recently, there were only four big dairy firms left in Maryland. Embassy's equipment sold at auction for pennies on the dollar. The buildings and nearly 25 acres of land sold for $1.35 million to a developer. Who else?

No farmer has it easy. It's a risky business; so much depends on the weather. When it's good, crops thrive and harvests are bountiful, but the resulting glut can mean lower prices at the marketplace.

In drought, monsoons, cold weather or whatever, crops that can be brought to harvest, then to market bring good prices -- but there aren't many of them. Commercial fishermen know that story: big catches, low prices; small catches, big prices.


Time to Draw a New Bottom Line?

The Naval Academy is getting out of the milk business for the same reason many individual dairy farmers are unplugging their milking machines. Economics.

A government cost survey revealed midshipmen can drink commercially produced milk under contract at $2.05 a gallon, which is 25 cents less than it cost the dozen workers at the Academy farm to produce the same amount. And you know how our government hates to waste money.

So taxpayers are told they will save about a quarter of a million bucks annually. But Anne Arundel County will lose its last dairy operation--- and unless another commercial milk producer or other farm enterprise takes over the property, contrary to what Congress promises, it's vulnerable.

Maybe not this year or next, but somewhere down the line the farm 15 miles west-northwest of the Naval Academy is going to be considered too costly to maintain, you know, a white elephant. And then what happens? If you know the answer, it's not a question.

But all of this goes far beyond a bureaucracy that's willing to spend a couple hundred bucks for a toilet seat and monkey wrench but not $2.30 for a gallon of milk to put muscle on its fighting men. It goes beyond the closing of the farm.

It's representative of what's happening all around us. Farmers are giving up and moving off the land. Development fills the void. The Maryland Department of Agriculture is quoted as predicting that if the trend continues, in two generations, there won't be a single acre of farmland left to feed our projected population of nine million.

Fourth-generation Baltimore County farmer Wayne McGinnis, who is chairman of the Chesapeake Farms for the Future Board, recently wrote that in the past 45 years, about two million acres of farmland have been developed to accommodate a population increase of 2.5 million. Get this: more than half the total agricultural land of Maryland has been lost since 1950.

For every person added to the state's census, an acre of farmland goes out of production. Seems like it should be the other way around, but efficiency is the byword today. Produce more on less land, regardless of how much of our heritage is lost.

The Naval Academy dairy operation is a relative newcomer, established only 87 years ago to provide safe milk to midshipmen following a typhoid outbreak. Some farmlands switching from cantaloupe to concrete have been in production since Colonial times.

And when farmers leave the land, something else is lost. The bond between farmer and land and other creatures that live on that land whether they be cows, horses, quail or rabbits.

And trees. When developers buy, not infrequently the first thing they do is cut down the trees, young and old, regardless of species. They're in the way.

When housing developments rise on those grounds, there comes concrete and asphalt under which there are sewer and water lines, and usually, for aesthetics, a small batch of new puny trees barely big enough to hold a birdhouse.

When it's a dairy farm that closes, the biggest losers other than farmers who could no longer stay in business are the cows, great, gentle creatures. Many aren't needed on other highly efficient farms, so they get a one-way ticket to the slaughterhouse.

What's rural USA coming to? A landscape cluttered with highways, business and housing developments, not enough trees and undergrowth to support wildlife, no meadows big enough for a few cows to graze upon, no barns, nothing to distinguish it from the suburbs?

Sadly, and in a literal sense, that's the changing face of America.

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VolumeVI Number 32
August 13-19, 1998
New Bay Times

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