In 1953, when Buddy Clark’s grandfather Hugh went into the dairy business at Tucked Away Farm, just north of White Hall, there were 53 Grade A dairies in Albemarle County. Now there are two, both in western Albemarle: Ed Brookings’ operation, Early Dawn Farm on the Mechums River and Tucked Away. Buddy’s dad, Hugh Jr., bought Tucked Away’s 140 acres and built the double-six milking parlor.
Clark, officially Hugh III, now 60, took up dairying as his livelihood in 1980. He was 17. As of January 7, it’s been 43 years.
“A lot of people retired and their children did other things,” Clark said to explain the near extinction of local dairymen.
“I wouldn’t be in it if not for Gail,” said Clark. “She takes care of the calves.”
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” said Gail. “But I’m still here.”
Clark is now milking 72 cows. Usually the number is around 80 out of the 90 Holsteins in the herd. He will give non-breeders a second chance, but not a third.
He has a Holstein bull that’s relatively mild, but he also uses artificial insemination. He keeps all his heifers as replacements and pastures them down the road at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery. “We’re on the bubble size-wise,” said Clark.
He has 100 beef cows besides, some on pastures farther up Rt. 810. In all, he’s tending four properties totaling 550 acres of pasture and cropland. That doesn’t count the woodland. He grows 80 acres of corn and chops it all for ensilage. He raises all the hay he needs.
He has one full-time helper, Ben Staton, and he hires seasonal help, mainly for haying or corn harvesting.
“When I first got started I had a fellow—Clinton Shifflett—he was like a dad to me,” said Clark.
“Buddy taught me to milk,” said Gail.
“Clinton died in 1983. I hired Marvin Lambert. He worked here for 20 years, until he retired. He was a great man. He never raised his voice. He was so kind.
“Family farmers have always helped each other. When I started, Dan Maupin and the Abell brothers, Jim and Carr, helped me. Ed Brookings has helped me.”
Buddy and Gail have two kids, Joe and Hope, both now married. Hope is teaching at Crozet Elementary and Joe works for county parks and rec. Joe had a big career as a baseball player at Western and went on to play with distinction for Frostburg State in Maryland. He’s an assistant coach for the Warriors now and head coach for the JV squad. Buddy, once a Peachtree League player, coached in Peachtree when Joe was playing.
“The kids are great,” said Clark. “Raising kids on the farm gives them a work ethic. They never complained. They knew what had to be done. They never gave us trouble.”
“Andy Powley and his son, Martin, have helped me,” said Clark, circling back.
Clark thought there might be a chance Joe would decide to take up the dairy.
“It’s not going to happen,” said Gail.
Gail, in her spare time away from relentless calf chores—feeding them, carrying water to their pens—does house cleaning for a few clients and adds in tax work during the filing season. “I started that in ’09 when milk prices got so low.” For fun, she hunts.
The 1 o’clock milking time got started so they could fit into their kids’ school sports schedules. They had vacations years ago when kids were young and Lambert shouldered the place singlehanded. Their last vacation was five years ago.
A cow gets milked every 12 hours. So, Buddy and Gail get started right after lunch and again not long after midnight. The night shift gets done around 4:30 a.m.
Every day. Well or ill. Storm or shine. At 10 degrees or 100. There’s a generator to make sure the milking machines and cooling system can keep operating. This is what it takes for other folks to have milk, cheese, butter, sour cream and whipping cream, not to mention ice cream.
Clark belongs to Dairy Farmers of America. They market the milk. Clark’s 1,500 gallon milk tank, kept chilled to 38 degrees, is emptied every other day. A big tractor with a tanker comes down the narrow gravel road to Tucked Away. In winter snows he has to clear the road for it. It’s about a mile and half out to the paved surface. Before it’s hauled to the plant, the milk is sampled and tested. The tank gets a three-cycle washing every time it’s emptied. An automatic system rinses the milking machines’ pipeline system at the same time. State inspectors show up unannounced about five times a year.
“We haven’t had a problem,” said Clark. He said he stays current by reading Progressive Farmer and Howard’s Dairyman.
Milk is bringing $24 per 100 weight now. It fluctuates. “Now it’s been stable for a couple of years,” said Clark. “That would be a good price if the price of feed wasn’t so high.” He gets a check from the co-op once a month and an annual report.
“I’ve always said it doesn’t matter how hard you work or how well you manage. It’s how the weather goes.
“I’m pretty proud of all the milk and beef I’ve raised for the American people,” said Clark, pausing to ponder who else he might need to thank for helping with that.
“I’ve never abused an animal. An abused animal will not produce. Why would I do that? I don’t push my cows. Mine produce about 50 pounds a day. It’s 8.6 pounds to the gallon. My milk averages 4 percent milkfat.”
The parlor has six elevated milking stations on each side—cows come in shifts of 12—with a central trench between them for a man to work in. Half a dozen cows get their udders washed while the machines suck the milk from six others. You can do 40 cows an hour that way. The cows are fed as they are milked; each gets 8 pounds of feed containing 20 percent protein. When they’re done, they mosey off to the ensilage trough. “I have fewer health problems if the cows aren’t pushed to produce to their maximum potential,” Clark observed.
Gail grew up in Nelson County. “Buddy came to a baseball game there to see his sister play,” she recalled. “I was pitching.
“I married for love. It was blind love. Blind love.”
Her look admitted that hers will always be a love that blind.
“It’s a good life but it’s a hard life. It’s all about the weather and the milk price. We’re blessed in a lot of ways—our beautiful children.” She’s wearing an insulated—once upon a time—hunting jacket, worn into tatters, that started out as Buddy’s.
These days she’s tending to 38 bony, gangly, adorable calves, hand feeding them bottles of the milk taken from their mothers. They’re taken off when they are one-day old and then go 60 days on the jugs of milk before moving on to other feeds.
“Wherever I’m needed, that’s where I am,” said Gail. Her calves show adoration for her. She is their mother, tender and reliable.
“I want to see Niagara Falls,” she said. She considers her bucket list too ambitious beyond one item. “Yeah, we’d like to go to the beach for a couple of days, too.”
Clark built the modest home he lives in, a rustic, Cape Cod style with a wide front porch. He keeps the wood stove going in the basement. Gail keeps a daily diary going. She keeps records on her calves, too.
Buddy talks about getting a part time job once he retires. But, Gail noted, he’s never worked for anybody else.
Or maybe he’ll just run the beef herd.