AIRVILLE, Pa. — This year’s Pennsylvania dairy princess, Gabrielle “Gabby” Murphy, grew up in the outskirts of Philadelphia. At a very young age, an early passion for sports propelled her into competitive swimming, as well as giving her an affinity for horses and horseback riding.
But despite her urban roots, lifestyle and friends, some of Gabby’s best childhood memories remain deeply rooted in dairy farming. From the time she was about five years old, Gabby would spend a few weeks each summer with her grandparents at their southern York County dairy farm.
Little could anyone have guessed that the paths Gabby trekked around that farm would eventually lead her to wearing the crown of the 2011-2012 Pennsylvania state dairy princess.
Her grandparents, Harry and Beth Bickel, relocated to their Alta Vista West farm near Airville, Pa., when suburbia and development began encroaching upon their West Chester, Pa., dairy operation.
“But my mom always wanted a farm, “ Gabby said of her mother, Donna Kennard, who grew up on the Bickel family’s Chester County dairy farm when the area was more rural. Eight years ago, when Gabby was a sixth-grader, her grandmother developed serious health issues. Donna and the family began looking for property closer to her parents’ farm, so they could be available to help with the dairy herd while her grandmother underwent treatments. The Kennards purchased their present Three Willows Farm, just a few miles from the Bickel’s dairy, and relocated the family to a more country lifestyle.
Gabby, whose childhood dairy farming experience had been mostly limited to helping with the calves and feeding the farm cats, soon found herself taking a greater interest in the cows. By then, too, she had grown tall enough to help in the milking parlor.
Milking cows was not the only new interest Gabby developed. Her focus on swimming waned in the new setting and she began pursuing a new sports passion, softball. Eventually, Gabby’s friend Carlyn Crowl persuaded her to get involved in York County’s dairy princess and promotion program.
“I didn’t really know all that much about dairy farms,” Gabby says in reflection. “But I found that I really enjoyed it, especially because of my grandfather.”
She served as a county dairy maid for a year, a dairy ambassador for two years and spent three years as the county’s alternate princess. With all the other activities in her life, including running emergencies with the Airville Volunteer Fire Company, the princess responsibilities demanded more time than her busy schedule allowed.
But last year Gabby realized that, as a Delaware Valley College sophomore preparing to apply to vet school, her time to serve as a dairy princess was running out. Though she was crowned the York County princess early last June, her reign did not actually begin until July. So she and Carlyn teamed up to carry out a jam-packed schedule of June Dairy Month promotional activities.
“I set a goal of dedicating last summer to filling the responsibility of being dairy princess to my fullest,” Gabby said of her busy schedule before returning to college. “I’ve enjoyed every moment of it.”
Still, she had no ambitions of winning the state title and didn’t expect to finish as a finalist. Her goal was to make friends, have fun and, hopefully, compile a winning scrapbook of activities.
Ultimately, Gabby’s scrapbook was not selected a winner. She, to her astonishment, was. And, in addition to winning the state crown, Gabby’s fully memorized speech earned her first place in the dairy pageant’s speaking competition and a spot on the program presenting it to the audience.
Winning the state title has given Gabby several opportunities to participate in dairy and related youth activities with which she had not previously been familiar. Attending the annual Dairy Summit has been one of the highlights of her reign, where she had the opportunity to meet and visit with dairy farmers and representatives of various dairy industry supporters. Junior Holstein convention participation in February was also a new experience for her, one that she encourages other local dairy youth to attend for both the fun and learning activities. Farm tours have been very educational, she said, offering a chance to look at different types of dairying facilities and visit with their owners and operators.
The Pennsylvania Farm Show was another highlight of her year, as well as participating in a large Philadelphia-area food show. Both presented opportunities to explain dairying and the dairy farm business to many urban attendees, especially youngsters who have never been exposed to farm or rural life.
Occasionally Gabby has to field queries on controversial subjects, such as discussions on conventional versus organic milk and misinformation about hormones in milk. The princess program, her college studies and the practical knowledge gained from her grandparents dairy farm have all contributed to her knowledge and poise in dealing with difficult questions. She has worked hard at answering challenging questions with honesty and respect.
Gabby especially enjoys teaching children and has completed about 200 school visits at the local level. She takes a calf with her on each visit, memorable to the students since many have never seen or touched a calf. She’s also devised a “Milko” game, similar to bingo, to keep students engaged in her presentations.
One dairy promotion she did at Montgomery County High School, focusing on the healthfulness of 60 minutes daily of exercise and refueling with chocolate milk for sports, proved successful beyond her imagination. Each student had to do 60 seconds of an exercise (hula hoop, pushups, etc.) to win a chocolate milk. It soon became a competition among the students to outdo one another, and maybe earn more chocolate milks.
“They may not remember what I said, but they remember petting a calf,” she said of the personal satisfaction she has found in visiting and taking her calf along to area senior-care homes. “If I can make someone’s day happier, that’s so heartwarming.”
She chuckles recalling how she literally ran with her calf through the inside of one nursing-care center, moving from one spot to another within the facility. The goal was to prevent the calf from having an “accident” on the way, a challenge that was successfully accomplished.
With so much of her time devoted to state and local dairy promotion, Gabby sometimes relies on her siblings to lend a hand in her place doing house and barn chores, preparation for appearances, even helping to catch her Lineback calf, Rojo, who enjoys wandering all over the farm. Her sister, Taylor, is 18 and plans to follow Gabby to Del Val next year as a freshman student. Dillon, 16, is a 10th-grade, bull-riding, rodeo enthusiast who wants to farm. Ben, 16, is a close friend who is part of the family and considering joining the military. Christian, 11, is a fifth-grader and recently returned from participating in a bull-riding event in Arizona. Anagrace, the youngest at 9, is in third grade, loves rodeo events along with her brothers and is a dairy maid on the county promotion team.
With her local responsibilities soon to end, completing state appearances and preparing for her junior year at Del Val will absorb much of Gabby’s summer. She is involved in a number of campus activities, including the Collegiate Farm Bureau and Block and Bridle Club, which recently worked together to hold the college’s first Meat-In.
And, after helping to organize and run a recent collegiate FFA leadership program, attended by more than 200 high-school FFA members from four states, Gabby has tossed her hat in as a candidate for next year’s conference leadership position. She’s also up for nomination to the executive committee of the popular Del Val A-Day event for next year, after working in several capacities at the recent campus-wide event.
But once her crown is packed away and traveling the state promoting dairy becomes just a memory, Gabby will still remain involved in the community, including the local volunteer fire company.
“I grew up around fire trucks,” she said. Her mother is a paramedic, her dad was also involved and she had a babysitter who was an active volunteer. “The fire house was my home,” Gabby said.
She became a junior firefighter at 16, is trained in CPR, but has been too busy to complete her certification, and thus must remain in a support role for the time being.
Returning to the area to serve dairy farmers as a large animal veterinarian, focusing especially on dairy cattle, is Gabby’s long-term career goal. She knows that several dairy vets in the area are nearing retirement age and hopes that, at the end of her next six years of schooling, she will be able to obtain a starting position with one in the general area of home.
“My intent,” she said adamantly, “is to come right back here.”