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A heart to help

Farmer shares work ethic and expertise with others
Story and photos by Glen Liford 9/29/2017


Larry Gibbons backgrounds calves on his 175-acre farm in Church Hill. He has 120 mama cows, some 85 yearlings, and a number of bulls.
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Everyone is known for something. And friends of Larry Gibbons are quick to refer to his resourcefulness and willingness to help his fellow farmers as among his most distinctive and admirable qualities.

Hal Thurman, who worked closely with Larry both when Larry was a Co-op customer and later a coworker at Hawkins Farmers Cooperative in Rogersville, says he was continuously learning something from the enterprising farmer.

“He has always been able to figure out how to do anything,” says Hal. “I learned a lot from working with him.”

Larry, who farms in the Church Hill community, developed his work ethic and knack for getting by with what he had while growing up on his family’s diversified farm. He and his two younger brothers, Bob and Leon, worked alongside their father, John R. Gibbons, as the elder Gibbons tried a number of agricultural ventures throughout the boys’ formative years. The family grew tobacco — some years as many as seven acres. They raised beef cattle and hogs, operated a dairy, and grew hay and corn for silage.

“We did what needed to be done,” he says of the farm work. “And we liked it.”

Upon graduation from high school in 1962, many of his classmates were drafted as the conflict in Vietnam was brewing. Expecting a draft notice at any time, Larry faced the challenge head on and volunteered for the Army, serving for two years at Fort Riley, Kansas, in the 1st Infantry Division known as The Big Red One. Right before his unit was to be sent to Vietnam, Larry was unexpectedly granted a two-week leave of absence. When he returned to the base, most of his unit had been deployed to Southeast Asia. Larry spent the remainder of his time in the service “hauling rations” and training in tanks.

“[The tanks] were just heavy-duty tractors,” says Larry with a chuckle. “I remember one time they were expanding the military base. We were sent out to make a road through the woods. We just chewed it up, rolling over fence rows and knocking down posts. We had a ball.”

After years of farming the rough terrain in East Tennessee, Larry modestly says the Army job “wasn’t too bad.”

When he returned home, Larry worked for three years in a paper plant in nearby Kingsport, which he says was more challenging than his stint in the military.

“I didn’t like being cooped up,” he says. “So I quit and went to work in construction for a while building houses.”

He later helped on a local farm as a hired hand and then served as farm manager at another. He spent around eight years or so at that job before the hard-working farmer caught the eye of Tom Henard, who was managing the Co-op at that time.

Larry’s dad had been one of the founding directors of Hawkins Farmers Co-op, selling stock to help the fledgling cooperative get off the ground as it was being established and as it opened for business in 1959.

John R. Gibbons’ dedication to the Co-op made an impression on his son. When Tom came calling many years later and asked the young farmer to consider coming to work at the farmer-owned business, Larry recognized the opportunity as a chance to help his fellow farmers. He began work at the Co-op in 1982 working in the fertilizer plant.

While he served primarily in the fertilizer area, Larry’s ability to figure out how to get things done ensured he was called on in many other areas as well, installing livestock handling systems and working on numerous other projects, says Hal.

“He was widely recognized as a problem solver,” says Hal. “Our customers knew it and would seek his opinion about whatever issues they had.”

Hal recounts how one such customer came into the store’s office one day, brooding over the process of installing a frost-free waterer. After Larry passed by four or five times and heard Hal trying to reassure the customer about the product and its ease of installation, Larry and Hal finally decided to just install the unit themselves.

“That approach brought the Co-op a lot of business,” says Hal.

“The main thing was that we had a good time doing it,” adds Larry, who spent 23 years at the Co-op working with farmers and sharing his skills where needed before retiring in 2005.

Today, the talented farmer backgrounds calves and raises hay on his 175-acre farm and another 500 acres or so of rented ground in the Church Hill community near where he grew up. He has around 120 mama cows, some 85 yearlings, and a number of bulls. He usually puts up 1,000 to 1,100 rolls of hay each year.  His cattle are fed Co-op Foundation Cattle Mineral (#663).

And while one of his greatest challenges these days is finding labor willing to help out on the farm, he still has many Co-op customers who call on him when they have a calf to pull or a project that they need help with on their farm. Often it keeps him from the chores on his own operation.

“But that’s alright,” says Larry. “That’s the way I like it.”

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