On Saturday, Kent Larsen rises with the sun and hauls his first tractor load of straw before most of his neighbors have gotten out of bed. It's hard work, and Larsen is tired, sweaty and hungry by noon.
But Larsen is not a farmer. He is a Mormon, and it was his turn to work a day at Bountiful Farms, the 900-acre dairy farm that Mormons own in Trappe, Md., on the Eastern Shore.
Like many of the 20,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in this area, Larsen spends one Saturday a year working at the farm.
The facility, one of the largest dairy farms on the East Coast, has earned a tax-free annual gross income in recent years of over $1 million. Of that amount, more than $250,000 is returned to the Mormon's own welfare system.
The church in accordance with its strong belief in the work ethic, discourages its 3.2 million American members from relying on government welfare in times of need.
Instead, members are expected to exhaust their own resources and then turn to the church's own welfare system for help.
Assistance could take the form of a bag of groceries or money for a mortgage payment if a parent is temporarily out of a job, or long-term assistance for the permanently disabled.
Church officials in Salt Lake City said the church helped about 139,300 persons nationwide last year and placed 23,400 in jobs. Anyone who receives assistance is expected to work for the church -- doing anything from keeping the grounds at the meeting house to stuffing envelopes.
At Bountiful Farms, all milk from the 480 cows is sold commercially and the profits returned to the system. At other Mormon "businesses" around the country -- canneries and factories that turn out soap, pasta and toothpaste, among other things -- the products (under the Deseret brand) are sent to bishops' storehouses around the country.
The storehouses, a sort of department-grocery store, are where needy Mormons can shop for free. So far there are no storehouses in this area, but one is planned for Prince George's County.
The Mormons operated another dairy farm also called Bountiful Farms, near Dulles Airport until 1958. Two years later, they purchased Bountiful Farms, but had trouble making it profitable. Then, in 1963 they hired dairy farmer Mehrle Simpson, who is not a mormon, to run it. Now, with the help of 12 paid employes and a computer that helps determine the most efficient schedule of milking and impregnating the cows, it has become a success.
The 1,000 Mormon volunteers who pass through each year thus are relegated to basic tasks like digging holes and shoveling manure. "They can only do the simplest tasks, which they do slower than a professional would," Simpson said. "So I'd be surprised if we saved any money as a result of the (free labor)."
"But that's not the point of this anyway," Simpson added. "The main thing is the brotherhood of working together -- and they're learning to do something with their hands."
And that's exactly what the volunteers seem to like about the farm. "If I weren't here, I'd be working at home in my office like I do all week," said Larsen, a management consultant and the owner of an auto repair shop. "Working with my body is exhausting, but a great release." Larsen is the bishop, or congregational leader, of the ward, or church, in College Park.
Wendell Zollinger, a microbiologist at Walter Reed Hospital, said he loves working on the farm because it reminds him of his childhood on a farm in Utah. "This isn't exactly something you'd expect to find around Washington," he said. "I feel lucky to have the opportunity to be here."
The physical labor fits in with the Mormon's health code. It is suggested that Mormons get regular exercise, keep trim and stay away from liquor, coffee, tea and cigarettes.
In addition members of the 150-year-old church are encouraged to store at least a year's supply of food and staples in their homes. They're not anticipating a national crisis with their stockpiling, they say, but just guarding against strikes and unexpected personal crises.