By Ryan Cornell
NEW MARKET -- It was a calm evening, just like any other, when the skunk snuck into Arthur Martin's barn.
The skunk, stricken with rabies, infected seven calves that Martin would later have to euthanize.
The loss was pretty devastating, especially for a farm as small as his -- 70 heads of Holstein cattle compose it -- but it's unexpected setbacks like these that you learn to expect as a dairy farmer.
Martin, a second-generation dairy farmer, didn't always have his heart in Holsteins. After graduating high school, he studied aviation at the Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He worked as an airplane mechanic and pilot for seven years before returning to the Shenandoah Valley in 1994.
He said he likes dairy farming because it lets him work at home where he can be with his wife, Lois, and children, who help out.
"They like farming, but they don't like dairy," Martin said about his kids. "When you're young, you like to go places and do things."
Indeed, there are no off days when it comes to dairy farming, whether it's monitoring, feeding or milking the cows, each of which produce between 60 and 70 pounds of milk per day.
Martin recalled the switch from pails that hung underneath each cow and were poured out to a more efficient system of milking using pipelines that feed into a tank.
"Before I was getting up at 3:30 in the morning," he said. "And now I don't get up till about 5 o'clock."
Today, Flat Rock Dairy, named for its location on Flat Rock Road northwest of New Market, comprises about 150 acres within spitting distance of his father's dairy farm.
The Martin house, which sits across a dirt driveway from the cow barn and next to a patch of decapitated corn stalks -- "chomped right off" by a cow that escaped while the family was at church -- is filled with a menagerie of cow-themed knick-knacks. Porcelain cows masquerade as salt and pepper shakers on the kitchen table. A few heifers find pasture on the fridge door. Miniature hooved figurines sit on the windowsill and ledges. All of them moo out silently: This is the home of a dairy farmer, in case the silo doesn't give it away.
Martin said small farms like his are disappearing as it becomes harder for them to make a living. Dairy farms are either expanding or getting out of the business entirely, he said.
Flat Rock Dairy supplies its milk through the Dairy Farmers of America cooperative, after Shenandoah's Pride was phased out last year.
The industry faced a difficult time in 2009, with milk prices dropping and feed prices high, but he said dairy lately has enjoyed renewed demand due to booming exports to Mexico and China -- total dairy exports have increased by 26 percent from last April to this April -- and the nation's recent yogurt craze.
He said support from local independent businesses in the dairy industry as well as moderate temperatures have helped turn the Shenandoah Valley into a dairy haven.
"The climate is usually good for dairy," he said. "Summers aren't quite as hot and winters aren't as cold as other areas of the country."
It's been a handful of years since Martin had to euthanize his calves, and he's recovered since then.
"The Lord has definitely blessed us," he said.
Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org