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Dairy farm surrenders to lure of progress

Skeletal metal frames are all that remain of once noisy dairy barns. The roofs have already been removed. Sheets of metal are stacked nearby.

There's no mooing, just the sound of sparrows scavenging for animal feed. It's safe to walk in the barn with my dress shoes. All the cow manure is dry like greenish saw dust. This place is losing its trademark farm pungency.

Fred Gore, dressed neatly in well-pressed blue jeans, plaid shirt and dark cowboy boots, strolls ahead of me. Scattered in the distance are about a dozen other farm buildings, what's left of Gore's Dairy.

One by one each building is being dismantled. A farm worker who for years herded and milked cows, he climbs up a ladder, power drill in hand. At 32 feet up, he cautiously steps onto the steel beam. Some equipment will be sold for reuse; others sold as scrap.

By June there will be nothing left. I'm watching the death of a once proud family enterprise. Gore's Dairy: 1943 to 2006.

The last batch of cows was shipped to Indiana and Myakka City last month. On Jan. 27, a stainless steel tanker with 6,200 gallons of milk drove up the incline for the last time and headed to the Publix milk processing plant in Lakeland.

On this day, Fred Gore doesn't seem affected by the dismantling. But Faye, his wife of 33 years, sees the tears.

Farming has been this family's business since Gore's grandfather came from South Carolina in the late 1800s. Gore delivered milk door to door daily in Lacoochee when that community boasted its own saw mill and movie theater. It's hard for him not to be nostalgic about it. But he's also realistic.

"We got in the way of progress," said Gore, 76.

If you drive north on U.S 301 to reach the farm, you'll see what Gore is talking about: a Wal-Mart Supercenter, chain restaurants. A dairy farm looks and smells out of place.

Once this farm was 2 miles outside the Zephyrhills city limits. Framed aerial pictures on Gore's office wall show the dairy farm surrounded by orange groves on all sides. This used to be open country.

Soon the 300 acres where Gore has kept 2,500 head of cattle will be transformed into 550 new houses.

I was curious if Gore stayed up late nights fretting about selling his land, the land his father bought.

But he's ready to get out of this farming business. He's had enough already with fight

ing the state Department of Environmental Protection, haggling over waste handling regulations, the size of his herd. He's tired of fending off land speculators salivating over turning his pasture land into parking lots.

That makes him no different from the scores of other dairy farmers who have surrendered their way of life in the last decade. Florida has 165 dairy farms. Ten years ago, there were 300. And there is news that five more dairy farms along the Gulf Coast are about to close. Gives real meaning to the slogan, "Got milk?"

But let's face it. Dairy farming is a hard business. People don't do this for the money. You're born into it. Just ask David Harwell, 39, Gore's stepson and the person who has been managing the farm for the last few years.

"It's life and you do it," Harwell said.

Gore has clearly had enough of the seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year job. He's tired of milking cows three times a day. When you produce 14,000 gallons of milk a day, 2 percent of the state's production, enough to supply the daily needs of a quarter of a million Floridians, it keeps you busy.

Selling means Gore and Harwell can stop hating the holidays. On a dairy farm, machinery always seems to break on holidays when the parts stores are closed. No more worrying about the cows getting caught in mud and struck by lightning.

The next major concern for Gore is finding a new place for him and Faye, someplace where the grandchildren can come visit. That's not as simple as it sounds.

Other than when he was in the Navy and when he was a student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Gore has never had close neighbors.

But if he plans to stick around Zephyrhills, he better get used to being neighborly. Those wide open spaces are disappearing fast.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sppimes.com.

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