Warren Gaby, who started showing cattle in a Greeneville warehouse at age 4, says farming is one of the noblest professions a person can enter. Growing up, he never questioned going into the family business, which for nearly a century has been raising cattle on a farm nestled in northern Greene County.
“I had other opportunities, and I took some of them,” said Gaby, reclined at his dining table and holding a 1945 black-and-white photo of his grandfather, Henry, who purchased the land in 1918. “But farming, you know, it’s in my blood. And once it gets in your blood, that’s what you do.”
That’s what made the Ottway farming family’s decision last December bittersweet. Their Jersey cattle have consistently ranked as some of the best in the United States, Canada and across the Atlantic.
In December, Warren, his brother Johnny, Johnny’s son, Henry, and the rest of the Gaby family put up for sale their bred heifers and dairy cattle — and in so doing, shutdown one of the longest running dairy farms in Tennessee, records from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture show.
“It’s time. I’m ready,” said Johnny, who laughingly referred to the event as the “we’re-too-old-to-do-it-anymore sale.”
The list of the farm’s accolades is impressive by most any standard, and an exhaustive list would be massive.
At various times over the last 50 years, the American Jersey Cattle Association ranked the Gaby family’s herd as one of the best in the nation, newspaper records show. When the Isle of Jersey first allowed bulls from other countries to enter their market about a decade ago, two of the first 10 bulls selected came from the Ottway farm.
In 2007, a group of British and American researches and dairy farmers toured the Gaby property, praising the quality of the Jersey cattle raised there. That same year, the cattle association’s performance index listed 15 cows from the Gaby farm on the association’s top 1.5 percent list. And a year later, a Jersey purchased on the Gaby farm won the 2008 Kentucky National Jersey Show & Sale.
Different members of the family have won major honors in shows dating back to the 1940s.
“The Gaby family is humble, but their profile is increasing,” a Michigan-based breeding consultant told The Greeneville Sun during the 2007 tour, and the bulls from their herd “have been successful in artificial insemination circles around the world.”
It has been breeding that helped put the Ottway farm, known as the Gaby Jersey Farm and formerly known as the Twin Popular Farm, on the transatlantic map, thanks in part to Johnny’s son, Henry.
“He’s got us where we are right now, the breeding part of it,” Johnny said. “He has also really been the marketeer. He has done a lot of the selling for us.”
Their international success may lead some to wonder why they would ever abandon such a venture.
Warren and Johnny cited the need to expand the operation, add more cows and buy more land, something neither farmer was enthused about.
“You need to keep spending and expanding to make it today’s world,” Warren said. “I’m not really able to do it anymore. My brother can’t. And you really can’t hire the help that you need to really run it. So it’s just time to quit.”
On many fronts, 2016 was a rough year for the family. For starters, the dairy market was particularly weak. The Farm Journal, in a story with the headline “Hunker Down,” reported low profit margins for dairy farms across the nation.
Injuries and health problems also plagued the Gaby family. This year alone, Warren endured a staph infection, kidney stones, a broken hip after a cow knocked him down, and he lost the tips of two fingers in a farm mishap.
“And that’s why we are retiring,” Warren’s wife, Alice, said with a laugh.
Warren is 73 and Johnny is 67.
It’s not the first major sale on the Gaby farm. And still, the family said in December it was keeping their more than 100 acres and will retain nearly 100 cows.
What makes this one unique is that the Gabys intend to sell all their dairy cattle — no more milking and no intention to restart, the family said.
Alice called it “the grand finale.”
State and local agriculture officials have lamented the drop in dairy farms for years. Newspaper records indicate more than 800 dairy farms in the county during the 1970s, one on nearly every rural road.
The latest Census reports show that nearly 80 percent of dairy farms nationwide were family or individually owned, but they accounted for about 45 percent of all milk sales. Since at least 2007, the percentage of milk produced on small farms (usually less than 150 acres) decreased while increasing on larger operations.
It’s a familiar trend for the agriculture community: The number of farms is dwindling, but the average size is actually increasing.
The county lost more than 500 farms from 2007 to 2012, the last time the federal government performed a Census of Agriculture. But the average size of a county farm increased by 14 acres during that time, moving from 75 in 2007 to 89 in 2012.
“There is such a need to expand that it’s just difficult to compete. It’s hard and it’ll be bittersweet,” Warren said. “But it’s the time to do it and we’re ready.”