A new generation down on the farm Young family lured by hard but rewarding life


UNION BRIDGE -- As her mom herded cows into the barn and her dad readied the milking equipment, 2-year-old Jenna Myers sipped chocolate milk through a straw and sang softly to a cow named Lamb in the end stall.

The rest of the herd listened to 98 Rock on the radio.

Life for John Mike and Sue Myers and their two daughters sometimes has the quiet, comforting cadences of Jenna's lullabies. Other times it has the loud, pulsing beat of hard rock.

And the couple, in their late 20s, loves it.

"We have an awful lot to be thankful for," Sue said. "We can be home with our children. I spend more time with my husband. It's important for the family."

Their other daughter, Nikki, is 1.

The dairy business is attracting fewer young farmers. Start-up costs are high and milk prices have been down in the past few years, said Roberta Weber, a dairy specialist with the Cooperative Extension Service in Carroll.

"There are easier ways to make a living," she said.

Maryland lost 30 percent of its dairy farms from 1980 to 1990, according to an extension service study.

The 1990 U.S. Census shows that farm residents are slightly older than other Americans. The median age was 38.9 years for farm residents, compared with 32.8 years for all Americans.

Both John Mike and Sue tried other jobs before deciding to continue the work generations of their families had done before them.

"We both found out factory or office stuff was not for us," said John Mike, 29.

He worked for a year "baling clothes" at the New Windsor Service Center. She has an associate's degree in business and worked for an accounting firm.

The fact that they made the choice to be dairy farmers without family pressure to join the business makes it easier to face the daily grind, said Sue, 28.

They've been married five years and worked together at the farm for seven.

The hours are long -- John Mike gets about 4 1/2 hours of sleep a night this time of year -- and the work is relentless.

With help from John Mike's father, Jim Myers, the family milks 55 cows twice a day, every day of the year in every kind of weather. And they grow crops on 350 acres.

The dairy operation is on a rented 201-acre farm at the end of McKinstrys Mill Road at the Frederick County line. The farm is in a permanent agricultural land preservation program. Jim, 53, lives on a 142-acre farm five miles away that has been in his family for generations.

The family is working on a partnership agreement in which John Mike and Sue would buy half of Jim's cows and equipment. Jim's wife, Joan, a county fourth-grade teacher, will retire in two years, and the family is looking ahead to when Jim won't want to work full time.

For now, Jim is happy to be working alongside his oldest son and his daughter-in-law.

"It makes it worth getting up in the morning -- working with family," he said.

Family help is crucial to getting started in the business, John Mike said. He and Sue have depended on loans from his grandparents to buy cows and equipment.

A registered Holstein costs about $1,400, but the Myerses recently paid $3,500 at a state sale for a Holstein with a good pedigree.

The family is aware that the public is concerned about the safety of its food, John Mike said.

"We strive to put a healthy product on the shelf," he said.

The cooperative to which the Myerses sell their milk sells dairy products to High's and Giant Food.

John Mike and Sue said they hope to be farming here 30 years from now. The neighborhood will have a few more houses then, but they plan to continue their work.

"The generation before us has seen a lot of change and has worked with the changes through science," he said.

He's optimistic he'll be able to do the same and hopes his enthusiasm will spark in his daughters an interest in agriculture.

For now, Nikki is learning to walk and Jenna is splashing in mud puddles, stomping through manure piles and serenading the cows.

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