"C'mon, girls, let's go up," called David Patrick.

He strode down the concrete ramp, urging them to move where it was warm, away from the biting wind. But the girls weren't budging. As the gray afternoon sky darkened, he nudged a few cows forward, and slowly they ambled into the milking parlor's metal stalls.

There, Patrick, his wife and sons, and their employees methodically cleaned the cows' udders with iodine and attached vacuum cups for milking. In just minutes, pumps emptied bulging udders, which each held six to seven gallons of milk, sending it swooshing through plastic tubes and pipes into a stainless steel tank.

After each milking, they disinfected the cows, cleaned the machinery and led the animals to outside pens before bringing in another group. Three hours and 170 milkings later, the Patricks were done for the evening.

At 4 o'clock the next morning, they would get up and do it all over again. At Maple Dell Farm in western Howard County, one milking follows another, every 12 hours. "It's a seven-day-a-week job," Patrick said. Milking "is every night and morning. It can feel confining."

Elsewhere in the county, dairy farming has all but vanished. Only five dairy herds remain, a tenth of the number in the 1950s, Patrick said. Some say the decline reflects the overall demise of traditional farming in Howard. Many farmers, including some of Patrick's friends, have sold their land to developers. Yet Patrick expresses steadfast optimism about the future of farming.

"I heard 10 years ago there won't be any farming in Howard County," he said. "I don't think it's going to fall by the wayside.

"There are plenty of people out there who want to farm."

At 75, Patrick is part of an aging group of farmers in Howard, though he has the hale look of a man for whom years of physical labor have been a tonic. During lunch at a restaurant recently, he gave the low-cholesterol spread a disdainful look and asked for butter.

Patrick is the third generation in his family to farm the 93 acres of Maple Dell. He lives in a white farmhouse with a wraparound porch at the end of a long driveway along Daisy Road where his father and grandfather also lived. As a boy, he sat at the kitchen's fat-legged oak table, squirming at mealtime with his three sisters and brother.

After he graduated from Lisbon High School in 1947, Patrick worked alongside his father and brother, managing a herd of 18 cows and plowing the land with horses. In 1954, he married a Catonsville girl, Ann Wurtzer. She settled into farming, driving a tractor and operating the hay baler even when she was seven months pregnant.

As a young farmer, Patrick turned down a chance to buy a 147-acre farm in another part of Howard for $33,000 because he was worried about making the payments. "We pay twice as much now for a tractor," he said wryly.

The Patricks raised seven children at Maple Dell, and the two oldest sons joined the operation, helping to expand and diversify it. They own nearly 250 acres: the "home farm" and a second along Old Frederick Road purchased eight years ago. They rent an additional 1,050 acres, raising corn, soybeans, wheat, barley and hay for their own use and selling the surplus.

They have 200 cows, which produce nearly 1,200 gallons of milk a day, most of it sold through a farmers cooperative under the brand Shenandoah's Pride Dairy. Their Holstein and Ayrshire cows have carefully managed pedigrees, and they show calves and heifers around the country, selling some cows for thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.

Although the house has remained modest, the farm complex has mushroomed into seven cow barns, a barn full of equipment, and six cement and steel silos for feed.

"We couldn't have done that without making some money," Patrick said.

He has acquired stature in the business, showing his cows for a record 64 consecutive years at the Maryland State Fair and serving on national farming boards.

The Patricks have been luckier than other farmers in finding and keeping help, even though the workers earn $10 an hour and have no benefits. The farm drew Brandy Lee Stallard, 21, the friend of a Patrick granddaughter, who left an office job in Frederick five months ago.

"It's my second home," said Stallard, who previously had no farming experience. She looks forward to arriving at Maple Dell, even at 5 a.m.

Because the Patricks rent land at 17 sites in western Howard, they have a big stake in whether farmland is sold for development. "I'd hate to see wall-to-wall homes in Howard County," Patrick said.

The family put Maple Dell in the state's preservation program soon after it was created in 1982, selling the development rights for $1,000 an acre. In 1997, after buying a 153-acre farm for $1.2 million, the Patricks placed it in the county's preservation program. They were paid $5,700 an acre for the development rights and will receive tax-free payments twice a year for 30 years. That money nearly covers the mortgage payments on the second farm.

"There's no way we could have bought a million-dollar farm without that [county] program," Patrick said. "That's why I have to be supportive."

Although the county will now spend up to $20,000 an acre to buy development rights, its preservation efforts have languished as developers have offered twice that. Howard has 19,200 acres under protective agricultural easements, well below its goal of 25,000.

Patrick chairs the preservation program's board of directors, and its members, some of them farmers, are trying to refashion the program. During a recent meeting at the county fairgrounds in West Friendship, board members discussed soil productivity and crop yields, but inevitably the talk focused on whether the county could match the $40,000 an acre being dangled by developers.

Harold "Bucky" Clark, a Glenelg farmer whose several hundred acres are not in preservation, said the county should boldly advertise its willingness to meet developers' prices. "You put that big figure up front," he said.

Patrick insists that there are benefits besides the money to preserving land. Most important, if a farmer sells off development rights, "you still own the ground," he said, adding that even preserved farmland is climbing in value, selling for $12,000 an acre and higher.

Yet, in the face of high-priced land deals, Patrick's middle-aged sons believe it could become more and more difficult to remain in farming, much less expand. With the land prices, "you're not going to get really big in Howard County. You're just not," said Dennis Patrick, 45.

He's thought about getting Maple Dell into the popular niche marketing and offering custom-made cheeses and other dairy products. But he estimated it would take $2 million to start up and said there would be a host of strict regulations. Instead, he's focused on developing Maple Dell's purebred lines of cattle as a way that a "smaller person" could stay in farming.

Michael Patrick, at 50 the oldest of the Patricks' children, thinks he can keep farming until he retires. But he believes that the next generation of Patrick farmers might need to go to a place where developers aren't constantly shopping for ground.

In the meantime, Michael gets the crops in, keeps the equipment running and worries about the climbing cost of fuel.

"Trucking feed in here and trucking manure out -- we run the roads a lot," he said.

Maple Dell's machinery shares Daisy Road with increasing traffic. A couple of miles south, through woods and past an old Methodist church, Daisy Road sprouts clusters of subdivisions, where the cul-de-sacs have names such as Fields End Court. There, the rolling land is a backdrop for new houses with stone facades and banks of arched windows.

Amid the broad lawns and three-car garages of manicured suburbia, a green tractor parked along the roadside looks out of place.

David Patrick's family owns nearly 250 acres and rents 1,050. Traditional farming has declined, but Patrick said "there are plenty of people out there who want to farm." The Patrick family's dairy operation in western Howard is one of five remaining in the county. From left, Michael, Ann, David and Dennis Patrick. Dennis has focused on developing Maple Dell's purebred lines of cattle as a way to stay in farming. Michael Patrick works on a 1955 tractor. He said the younger Patricks might need to find a place not coveted by developers.The family has put its farm, Maple Dell, in a state preservation program, selling the development rights.