This year’s Dairy Festival parade will be led by a couple whose roots in Hopkins County go back more than 100 years and have been involved in the milking industry since childhood. Randy and Shelia Koon say they are “honored and thrilled” to be selected as parade marshals for this year’s kickoff to 50th Annual Hopkins County Dairy Festival, yet they are not the type of people to seek the limelight.
“We’re kind of behind the scenes, not leaders,” Shelia said. “That’s why we were so surprised and thankful when Carolyn McKinney asked us to be the parade marshals. We’re honored and thrilled.”
The high school sweethearts will celebrate their 34th wedding anniversary this month. In August, they will pass a similar milestone — it will be 34 years that they have operated the Koon dairy.
The farm is located in the Bonanza community on land where Randy’s great-grandparents settled in the 1870s after moving a brood of more than a dozen children from South Carolina.
The Koon dairy really got started in 1932 when Randy’s grandparents, Herman and Mae Koon, purchased 20 registered Jersey heifers. The farm got electricity when it became available in rural areas of the county in 1937, which enabled them to purchase surge milkers for their Grade A dairy, and they sold milk in 10-gallon cans. Herman and Mae Koon had three children, Juanita, Marvis, and Randy’s father, Brody.
Brody Koon and his wife, Mary, would raise Randy and his siblings — Kris, Karman and Jana — on the dairy, where the youngsters worked alongside their parents. The children would all later have some ties to dairying. Kris is still in the dairy business, and Karman was in it for a while but has since sold out. Jana, meanwhile, won first runner-up in the the Dairy Festival Queen’s Pageant in their youth.
Brody Koon operated the farm with his father until Herman Koon died in 1962. Brody would keep the farm going for another 13 years until Randy and Shelia married and began working with him.
Shelia Koon was no stranger to the industry when she was growing up, either. As the daughter of Jr. and Wayne Bearden, she often traveled in the same circles as Randy, and both showed cattle at the annual livestock show. She also has a sister that’s in the dairy business.
“My dad was a dairy inspector,” Shelia said. “Mom and dad milked.”
In fact, until about four years ago, Shelia’s parents, working with her sister and his husband, were still milking in the barn that had been built in the mid 1950s.
“It was time to replace it,” Shelia said. “I’m so proud for them. They’re not flat on their knees, milking.”
Randy’s father, Brody, is still involved in the Koon dairy. He now lives a few miles from the original homestead, and while not as active with manual labor, he does a lot of the “brain work.”
Randy and Shelia have seen a wide array of changes to the industry over the years, including the wildly fluctuating prices for feed and milk — usually not in the dairy farmer’s favor. That’s been one factor that has led a lot of people to get out of the business.
Others have moved to different parts of the state where humidity doesn’t impact production the way that weather conditions do in East Texas. The sheer amount of paperwork can be a job unto itself because of environmental regulations and the proximity of dairies to so many lakes in the Hopkins County area.
And yet, said Shelia, “It’s been good for us.”
That doesn’t mean the occasional break isn’t welcome, however.
“It’s a 7-day a week job. ... We try to get away for two to three days, but we don’t go far,” Shelia said.
“We have good hands that worked for us for 25-30 years,” said Randy, whose brother Kris pitches in when they are on vacation, and also lends a hand when help is needed, and vice versa.
They said the people in the community, many who have passed away, were very instrumental in the family’s successes. She said that it was that pioneer spirit, to do what needed doing and to help your neighbor that really made a big difference.
“We wouldn’t change it in any way,” she said. “The way we raised our kids, it’s the way Randy’s always done.”
Like their parents, the four Koon boys graduated from Sulphur Springs High School, the oldest, Kody in 1999, the youngest, Koyt just last month, the other two, Kyle and Kory in the intervening years.
All four boys were involved in 4-H and FFA and the school ag mechanics teams in school, Kody and Kyle both competing in the national dairy judging contest. Kory and Koyt were named high point individuals at the Fort Worth Livestock Show. Kory and Kyle both earned ag scholarships for participating in the Fort Worth and San Antonio stock shows.
Randy and Shelia said they made it clear the boys were always welcome to go into the family business, but first they had to finish their educations and learn a trade.
Kody, now married to Breanna Hudson, went to Galveston to study nuclear medicine after graduating from Texas A&M-Commerce. He now is employed at a new cancer center in Greenville, while Breanna is a respiratory therapist.
Kyle went to the University of Texas at Houston for credentials toward a degree in dosimetry — the science of calculating the effects of doses of radiation on human organs and tissue. He is now working at the new cancer center in Greenville.
Kory earned his certification at a welding school in Tulsa, where he worked for a few years before returning home to the dairy business, something he’d planned to do since he was a little boy.
“He came home and told us he was staring work tomorrow,” Shelia recalled. “We thought he was teasing, but he’s been here two years. He’s Randy’s right hand man. He’s following in the footsteps of the family.”
Koyt, who recently built a 750-gallon spray rig which won top honors at the San Antonio and Houston shows, will be taking classes at the Paris Junior College-Sulphur Springs Center. He has an interest in welding, but has yet to decide what his career path will be.
Kory and Koyt also have earned reserve champion and other honors in the Hopkins County Professional Ag Workers Association’s Annual Hay Show with the bermuda grass that the family grows to provide feed for their cattle.
Randy and Shelia are members of the American Jersey Cattle Association, Dairy Farmers of America and several other trade groups. They raise all replacement heifers, generally keeping 250 head.
And they’re hardly strangers to the Dairy Festival. Shelia competed in the Dairy Festival Queen pageant in high school, and both have served on the Dairy Festival Board in the 1980s. Every year, they decorate golf carts for the “little kids” ride in the parade. The boys also were part of the “little kids” segment on stage. They also supply the cows that the Dairy Festival Queen contestants milk in competition.
On June 13, they’ll lead the parade with the “cow train” that Koyt and friends constructed with help from other family members. They’ll grab a quick hamburger lunch before hurrying home to get the cows to be milked during the contest.
It sounds like a lot of work, but that’s the kind of family that Randy and Shelia have created — industrious people who happily do what’s needed when asked.
“Family is important to us,” said Shelia, proudly pointing to a depiction of the old homeplace, painted on a saw blade and prominently displayed on their living room wall. “I’m in awe sometimes to think this has been in the family for such a long time. We have four sons that were raised here, and Ayden, our grandson, makes the fourth generation of dairy farmers here.”
If young Ayden’s interest in trailing Pawpaw to the barn is any indicator, that’s a very distinct possibility.
“We love what we do and love where we live. I hope when we’re gone, there’s still a Koon here,” Shelia said.
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