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Dairyman sees the end of farm life, with a smile

(ran East edition of Pasco Times)

The past clashes with the future along the eastern vista of Gore's Dairy.

Old Florida rubs shoulders with new development. Urban life encircles rural on the north end of a booming Zephyrhills. Change raps on the door of the status quo.

The dairy, which still coaxes milk from 1,500 cows each day, will shut down its machines and sell off its herd one day soon. Development is all around, and it's inching toward this rolling farm, which is under contract with home and shopping center builders.

But it took new environmental rules to finally do what decades of backbreaking labor, animal disease and even previous offers from developers could not: shutter the dairy.

New permits, never required in the past, plus an order to slash the number of cows added up to a fiscal no-brainer. Closing down made more sense than complying.

Now the end is near. At the north end of the property, trucks haul in loads of clay-dirt dozens of times a day from construction sites across U.S. 301. The soil is raising the level of the land that fronts the highway, the better for shoppers to access future retail stores.

To the south, the dairy still hums along as it has since its 74-year-old president, Fred Gore, first tugged udders every day before dawn.

Gore was 14 when his father moved the family from Dover, in Hillsborough County, to the roughly 60-acre dairy surrounded by orange groves. They owned 18 cows.

Gore said he would wake up each day about 3 or 4 a.m., milk cows and drive delivery routes until it was time to go to school. Afterward, he would come home and milk some more.

In such a small, close-knit community, police would look the other way when the unlicensed teenager drove his delivery truck. At first Gore delivered only in Zephyrhills, which had one stoplight at U.S. 301 and Fifth Avenue. Then his route expanded to Dade City and after that to Lacoochee.

"Life was a lot simpler then," said Gore, a friendly faced gentleman with white-blond hair and a throaty, Southern voice.

Farm life didn't let go of Gore for long. He graduated from Zephyrhills High School, attended college in North Carolina and joined the Navy during the Korean War. But he was injured during flight training in Pensacola and never went overseas. After a short stint as an insurance adjuster in Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, Gore ended up back on the family farm in 1955.

"You grow up in something, I guess," he said. "Your dad's a baker, you learn to bake."

By that time, the dairy owned 175 cows, milked by machines.

Over the next several years, the business saw a period of rapid growth and change. It acquired the cows from the prep school at Saint Leo, then supplied milk to the school. A modern "milking parlor" was added in 1957. Gore bought up other dairies in the state and owned land in Leesburg where he grew crops for feed. The company incorporated in 1960, and Gore became president in 1965.

He was the obvious choice to take it over. His brother, John Floyd Gore, who died last year, followed the musician's path and played for years with country singer Mel Tillis.

"He decided he wanted to blow the horn rather than working on the farm," Gore said.

The dairyman's life, Gore concedes, is not for everyone.

"The dairy business is not easy," he said. "Not many people want to work on a dairy farm."

The hardships are unforgiving: disease, fluctuating markets, long hours and hard, dirty work.

Problems often come unannounced.

Gore said the dairy has only missed one milking, when Hurricane Donna swept through in 1960 and knocked out power. The cows, accustomed to being milked three times a day, went unmilked for a day and a half. Some developed mastitis, an inflammation of the udders, and died.

"It was not pretty," Gore said.

Soon after, the dairy was equipped with generators.

In the early 1970s a mysterious illness infected the herd. It turned out to be an unknown villain, a disease called mycoplasma.

"I'd never heard of it, didn't know what it was," Gore said.

About 200 cows were infected, spoiling their milk, and many had to be slaughtered. Gore sold them for meat but still took a hefty loss.

Gore is a salt-of-the-earth farmer who knows his animals and their habits.

"Cows do not like hot weather. They have on leather jackets with fur," he explains, adding that their milk production drops by 25 percent during the summer.

But sitting in front of his laptop computer, he proves he is well-versed in the business side of things. He monitors the price of milk on the Chicago exchange and explains how supply and demand, competition and the price of feed drive his livelihood.

It was Gore the businessman who decided when enough was enough.

He said state Department of Environmental Protection rules implemented in 1997 would have required him to obtain an industrial wastewater permit and cut his herd back to 1,300 cows. He crunched the numbers and came up with a compliance cost of $1-million.

"It just doesn't make financial sense," he said.

Per an agreement signed in February, the dairy will cease operations no later than Dec. 30, 2006.

"That's the drop-dead date," Gore said. "Hopefully this place will be sold by then."

The dairy property _ 300 acres of prime real estate along a major highway _ is under contract with developer Bob Starnes. The price has not been disclosed.

It's directly across from the city's major shopping destination _ a Wal-Mart Supercenter that opened in 2001.

Starnes said 230 acres will be developed into a residential community for active seniors, with clubhouses, pools and other recreation. The 60 acres along U.S. 301 will become a mixture of offices, stores and restaurants.

No contracts have been signed, Starnes said, but he has fielded inquiries from fast-food chains, upscale restaurants and some "big-box" retailers.

But it will probably be at least a year before the tractors and construction crews move in. Gore needs six months notice to sell his cows, dismantle the buildings and empty the ponds on the dairy. Starnes said he is waiting for the property to be annexed into the city, a process the Zephyrhills City Council already has set into motion.

Starnes said he realizes he is dealing with a local institution, albeit one whose relationship with its neighbors is mixed.

The sentiment he's heard around town about Gore's Dairy: "It's been good but it smells."

Gore came close to selling in the past. The Lowe's home improvement store going up on the west side of U.S. 301 almost found a home at the dairy.

"We've had offers, but we were making money most of the time," he said.

+ + +

Nostalgia creeps into the conversation when Gore talks about selling and moving on. He's an Old Florida holdover who recalls drinking milkshakes at drugstore counters and trips to the beach when the coast was undeveloped and the Gulf water was clear enough to see the bottom.

He played tailback for Zephyrhills High School, when his dad let him escape the dairy, on a feeble team whose coach had lettered not in football but in shuffleboard.

"It was a fun time," Gore said. "We didn't win but one or two games."

But the sentimental side of Gore seems dominated by the steely, practical side. He views change and growth as inevitable, and he is not keen on watching it happen. He is selling every acre of his land without retaining a stake in what happens to it.

"Whatever the buyer wants to do with it, it's his," he said.

He'll miss seeing the birds, gators and turtles that hang around the dairy, but he won't miss the crush of urban sprawl.

"I don't want to sit here and watch all these little houses pop up all around," he said. And Gore has about had his fill of life on the dairy, especially as the government's grip on him tightens.

"I'm getting tired of it. There's so many regulations now."

But he hasn't lost his appreciation for a hard day's work, for riding a tractor over the fields, then looking back to see what he accomplished.

And, frankly, he'll miss the cows. They were one of his favorite parts of the job.

"When I was closer to the cows, it was seeing a nice, healthy cow that was a good producer," he said. "Cows are interesting. They each have their own personality.

"Now they're a number and they've got a computer chip on them."

That's how things have changed for this lifelong dairyman. That's why he's moving on.

He'll go sportfishing in the Bahamas, spend time at his house in North Carolina. He plans to keep up his feed business and possibly buy property outside Pasco to grow berries.

"You got to do something," he said.

Gore's Dairy is one of the last in Pasco, an increasingly suburban county. After it closes, where's the milk going to come from?

"(Dairies) will keep moving a little further north," he said. "It always comes down to money, if you can make a living at it."

Gore is anticipating a good year. He said prices are up, unlike last year when they hit 1977 levels and many dairies had to cut back or fold.

But it will probably be his last. And he won't stick around to see what becomes of his family's land. He's not wondering what fancy restaurant the developer can lure, or what kind of homes populate the senior community.

That means no watching the sun set from the pool deck of his home on the back side of the property.

"It used to go down over the grove. You get a shaft of light on the pond. I'll miss that," he said. "Of course, now it's setting over Wal-Mart."

_ Molly Moorhead covers news about east Pasco cities. She can be reached at (352) 521-6521 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6521. Her e-mail address is moorheadsptimes.com

Fred Gore, above, started out in the mid-1940s milking cows by hand and delivering milk around Zephyrhills. He is looking forward to December 2006 when the 300-acre Gore's Dairy will close. At top, Abel Salazar, who has worked at the dairy for three years, does prep work in front of empty milking machines.

Gore is bringing fill dirt to the dairy farm to get it ready for development. The property is prime real estate near Zephyrhills along a major highway. It is under contract and will be sold.

Gore was 14 when his father moved the family from Dover to the roughly 60-acre dairy. They owned 18 cows.

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