Gamblins honored as Dairy Fest Parade Marshals

Couple have taken the good with the bad in 34 years of milking

By FAITH HUFFMAN, News-Telegram News Editor

June 13, 2008 - This year's Hopkins County Dairy Festival Parade Marshals will be Phil and Norma Gamblin, who have been in the dairy business for more than 34 years, and have experienced all the highs and lows of a roller-coaster business.

The pair has operated a dairy business since they got married in 1973 and became partners with Phil's mother, Bennie Gamblin. They now are dairy partners with their youngest son, Walt, who along with wife Jessica is partners with Matt Jasmine in CNC Dairy. Phil and Walter are also partners with Jr. Hinton and Josh Boatman in GBH Trucking.

The Gamblins say the dairy industry, particularly their operation, has undergone quite a few changes over the years, and while not easy dairying has been "a good life," particularly for raising kids, according to Phil.

"It's changed drastically," Norma said. "It's not something you jump in and out of. It's a long term investment, one you don't usually see money till you get out."

The Gamblins encouraged both of their sons to seek higher education and pursue careers in other fields that interested them. Brent went on to use his degree as a substance abuse counselor for the state prison system. Walt got a degree, then decided to embark on a career as a firefighter. But after a few days at fire academy, he realized it wasn't for him, and like his father before him, returned home to the family dairy.

"He told us he wouldn't be happy unless he's in the dairy business," said Norma, noting that his decision came just as she and Phil were feeling tired and seriously thinking of getting out of the business.

But their son was just what they needed. Walt's ideas and work have revitalized the dairy, taking it that extra step forward and giving his parents a boost knowing the next generation would continue the family legacy of farming. That was three years and several major changes ago, and his parents say they fully intend to continue dairy farming for at least five more years.

Both Phil and Norma grew up on farms, the children of truck farmers who grew and transported their produce to markets such as Dallas, according to Norma. Phil's dad at one time drove a Carnation truck which hauled canned milk. He and his brother helped their parents out on the family dairy farm in later years. When his father died in 1969, Phil took on a large part of the responsibility for the dairy; his brother had been injured in an accident, and other family members helped out, but he and his mother, Bennie Gamblin, did most of the work.

Despite all that, Phil still managed to go to college and get a degree, as well as milking and doing other farm work. In 1973, he married Norma, and they, too, officially joined the dairy business.

When they first started, Phil and Norma Gamblin lived in a little trailer, about 12 square feet in size, and put out hay by hand because they had no feed spreader. They milked about 60 cows at the time in a little flat barn which they stayed in until 1983, when the old barn burned and they built the current facility. Converting to a milking parlor was a major change -- the auto-take off milking system really has been helpful, they said.

When they started raising and growing their own hay, they used round bales, which they thought was "really great" because it meant they didn't have to be put out every day.

They raised coastal bermuda for years and baled and bought hay, but with the drought, which hit so many farms hard a few years ago, they made some feeding changes for economic reasons.

"The drought forced us to change to silage," Phil noted. "The first year silage was good. The second we grew more. Now most crops are raised. "

They now grow coastal bermuda, rye, wheat and sorghum across the field and the many terraces Gamblins used years ago to crow truck crops. They've also trucked some hay in from a supplier in Oklahoma at times.

"We have more money in the feed now than in the whole dairy operation in 1978-79," Phil said.

They run a "closed herd," and until three years ago had sold none of their cattle, often tending injured or sick animals, nursing them for weeks until the heifers were ready to milk again. Walt has studied up on improving the breeding program, figuring out which pairs yield the best cows for better milk production.

Walt's working to install a new cooling system in feeding lanes outside the barn, which if his figures are right, should not only help wet and cool the animals outside the barn and dip shed, but also produce 4 pounds per head more milk, Norma explained .

They said that in their 35 years, things are now at an economic worst for farmers, even those who grow their own feed, transport their own milk (it saves money in transport, despite rising fuel costs) and have learned to do a lot of lesser vet work themselves over the years. Their feed costs are up 60 percent, and the feed to milk price ratio, 1.8 a pound, is the lowest they've ever seen it.

"It's a good life, but a hard life. It'll knock 10 years off you from stress alone," Norma said. "A lot of our friends are now out of the business."

"You have to be lucky if you make it," Phil said. "It's not just doing all the right things. You can know a lot of things. It's not from lack of work -- the economy factors in. You might not make a go of it."

He also said that going out of business isn't as easy as contacting Dairy Farmers of America about the cooperative's buyout program, which is funded "out of our milk check, not a dime of tax money." The amount invested in their operation, they say, is astronomical, adding that most people don't realize the amount of money farmers have tied into the business. For example, they have more in the cows than the cost of land and a house.

Despite all the hardships, Phil and Norma said dairy farming has been "a good life, and good way to raise kids." In fact, Norma often keeps their two grandsons, Cash and Clifton, during the day, and the preschoolers are happy to toddle behind their grandparents and Walt on the farm. They're also excited to have another grandchild on the way who they'll be able to share with.

Norma and Phil said they are honored to be recognized for their work, and to serve as this year's Dairy Festival Parade marshals.

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