FREDERICK — By August, Maryland had lost 10 dairy farms this year. The Hooper family farm in Frederick just joined that group.
Fourth-generation farmer Donald Hooper closed shop last month, ending a dairy operation his great-grandfather James Oliver Hooper began in 1910.
Two brothers, Marshall, 90, and Roland Hooper, 91, ran the farm for many years. Roland’s son, Donald, took over the business.
“My age and health is what put me out — not the money as much,” Donald Hooper, 61, said.
His two children are not interested in farming, and he will continue to grow crops. When you give up a farm, houses usually follow, Donald said.
Over the years, he has seen people passing out petitions and attending meetings to protest new housing development on land that used to be farms, but selling the 125-acre farm is not in the plans for now, he said.
“My dad could have sold it and gone someplace else, but we like it,” Donald said.
Roland Hooper said he has no regrets being a dairy farmer.
“I was born and raised on this farm and I loved it,” he said, “and I think there’s a future in it” for young people contemplating the vocation.
The cost of staying in business is high, Donald said, and government regulations can be financially stifling, “but I just don’t want people to think dairy farming is a terrible life.”
“And for most people who don’t think we should quit, they should do it for 32 years,” Donald’s wife, Peggy, said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re sick or not, you got to feed those cows. There are no vacations and no holidays.”
Health problems meant he could not handle the cows like he used to, or climb a 40-foot ladder to paint the barn, and Peggy was doing a lot of the work, Donald said. Farm workers painted the barn, “but not the way I did it,” Donald said. “I always want the farm looking real nice.”
Operating a small dairy farm was his preference, Donald said. A herd of 86 was the most he milked. Fluctuating milk prices made life stressful for dairy farmers, he said, even though the Maryland-Virginia milk cooperative tried to do the best it could when the market got flooded.
The last check he issued for dairy feed was $490 a ton. For that same amount, he could get eight or nine tons of feed when he started in the business, Donald said.
“All in all, it was decent living. I didn’t starve,” Donald said. “We might be bent a little, but we’re not broke.”
Farming is still a good way to get by, Donald said.
“You can still make a couple of dollars with crops,” he said. “Prices are great for crop farmers, but how long will it last?”
The dairy landscape has changed. When he was in high school, 15 dairy farms occupied a few square miles of each other in the Yellow Springs Road area, Donald said.
The Hooper Farm has had a few agriculture dignitaries over the years, including Russians and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials who came by to learn the workings of a small dairy farm.
He told the USDA officials he was milking in a 63-year-old facility, using a 58-year-old tractor and a 14-year-old truck.
“I told them, ‘How much more efficient you want me to get?'” Donald said.
The Russians were amazed as he hugged a cow that weighed more than a ton.
Dairy is the most fragile of all the agriculture sectors, Maryland Agriculture Secretary Earl “Buddy” Hance said during a recent tour of dairy farms in Frederick County.
Milk prices are not stable, and dairy farmers are concerned about the impact regulations have on their individual farms, Hance said.
Dairy farms in Maryland have dwindled to 490 operations. The Free State lost 10 dairy farms this year, and the largest dairy farm has about 1,500 cows, Hance said.
The future of dairy farming will rest with larger operations of a thousand cows or more, Donald said.
Jeannette Johnson said she and her husband, Mack, have had the good fortune to be 50-year neighbors to the Hoopers.
“Mack has helped them in many ways over the years when machinery needed repairs, and they have been very good about helping us in our time of need,” Jeannette Johnson said.