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Norbert Gabel, FCS Financial CustomerAs the lazy two-lane winds through the hills and hollers of south Missouri, high atop a hill above the James River, a man finds a life he’s longed for.

Small farmsteads line the roadways. Cows graze in the lush late-summer pastures. An occasional car wears a roof-top canoe.

It’s a far cry from the streets of Berlin that welcomed his birth and from the auto-making mecca of Detroit that brought a young 10-year-old through the gates to the U.S.

The serenity of the Ozarks sets in as the path leads us to the end of the journey.

Here, we find a man’s calling. Country living and the turkeys under his wing bring Norbert Gabel full circle.

From the Streets of Berlin

German immigrants, Norbert Gabel’s parents only intended to live in Canada for a few years, make some money and return to their homeland. Norbert was six years old when they made the move.

After a while, the going back option became a distant memory.

Settling in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Norbert spent his remaining childhood years and into adulthood ‘neath the shadows of the big city lights. He joined the military, serving his new country two years as a company clerk and a parachute packer.

Later, Norbert’s parents moved to New Mexico and he followed them there for a time. Still, he longed to live in the country.

After taking early retirement from the Army, Norbert remembers looking through magazines and marveling at how relatively inexpensive the land was in southwest Missouri.

He settled in Springfield in 1981, landing a ‘good job’ at the Solo Cup plant.

“I thought it was too costly to start a farm,” Norbert recalls. “I just really wanted a couple of acres and a house.”

He owned 20 acres near Elkland for a while and lived in an apartment in Springfield before building a house on 40 acres near Walnut Grove where he raised exotic animals for a time. Through an online dating service, he met and later married wife, Susan, a California transplant who had completed service as a United Nations worker in Sudan.

Then, his 28-year career at Solo would come to an end as the plant announced its closing.

Norbert had been intrigued by the opportunities poultry companies offered their growers. He looked at places for sale. Trees and streams were a must. His realtor helped him find assistance through FCS Financial and the rest is history.

Since 2005, he’s out lasted two tornadoes and, today, Gabel Farm, LLC, soars high on a hill, just south of Galena in northern Stone County. It’s home to some 18,000 tom turkeys Norbert grows for Cargill’s Butterfield complex. He was named Best Big Tom Tunnel Grower in 2013. And, he thrives on simply taking care of his birds.

Aside from spending his days off with the former owner before closing on the farm, Norbert had no prior farming experience — unless you count the time he owned exotics.

“It’s been said that turkey farming is relatively simple,” Norbert says, “(Give them) food, water and make them comfortable. It’s making them comfortable that’s the challenge.”

High On the Hill

turkey barnOriginating from Gentry, Arkansas or California, Missouri, the birds are hatched overnight, sexed and vaccinated, then de-beaked and loaded into tubs bound for arrival at the Gabel farm. Housed in a 600 feet long by 50 feet wide tunnel brooder house, the birds are further divided among three other grow-out houses, 400 feet by 50 and 450 feet by 50, once they reach week eight.

Norbert describes his operation as a “heavy tom farm,” meaning he raises primarily tom turkeys, likely bound for breast meat in a deli.

The birds are grown at the Gabel farm for 19 to 21 weeks, averaging one-half to three-quarters of a pound of gain per day. “We’re keeping the birds longer now due to a shortage of birds,” he says.

“I’m taking some losses because mortality goes up at this age,” he continues. “Feed conversion goes down. Weight goes up. I can’t make up in weight gain what I lose in mortality and feed conversion.”

Still, the turkey grower says he can’t complain. Growers like him are still getting paid based off of 18,000 birds, even though they are currently maintaining less than that.

Norbert is complimentary of the attention Cargill gives its growers. In fact, the company stood by him through two tornadoes. Yes, two tornadoes.

A rare January tornado hit the hilltop turkey farm in 2008, ripping off 90 feet of the brooder house roof. Ten-day-old birds were huddled to the back of the house. Remarkably, only 1200 were lost.

Then a second, more devastating, tornado hit the Gabel operation in May 2011. It was the same tornado that ripped through Joplin, Missouri, at EF5 strength.

Norbert remembers he and Susan headed for the garage. As she rounded up the couple’s passel of dogs, he listened for anything creaking. The trees swayed. Then, it was over.

The two stepped out of the garage and back inside the house. Looking out the window, Norbert realized he had been hit again. He immediately called Cargill.

From a distance, he could tell at least one building was hit. He climbed in the truck to head up the hill and survey the rest of the damage. Diesel fuel flowed down the drive. Building two was down as well. The middle of building three took a direct hit. Half of building four was down. The other half was still standing — sort of. Much of its debris cluttered the driveway.

The next day, with the help of 30 to 40 people, the clean up began. “We spent two days just trying to keep the birds fed and watered,” Norbert says. Luckily, a neighboring poultry farm had recently loaded out birds. The farm was damaged, but still had power and water. By the second and third day, many of Norbert’s turkeys were moved to the neighbor’s facilities. Six thousand birds remained in building four for an additional week before another farm had an opening for birds.

“All of Cargill’s management was here all six days with me,” Norbert credits.

Known for raising big tom turkeysAmid the destruction, Norbert’s death loss from the second tornado was surprisingly minimal at less than 1600 birds.

“Not rebuilding wasn’t an option,” he says, “not even after the second tornado. What else was I going to do?”

So, how did Norbert Gabel survive two natural disasters and climb his way to the top as one of Cargill’s top growers?

“I don’t know,” he says simply. “I’ve learned some lessons. Stay focused on the birds.”

Norbert says a field representative once told him, ‘you always know what’s going on. That’s big.’

Paying attention to the details is perhaps what sets this grower apart from his peers. “Any time I’m running up and down the driveway, I’m listening to the feed lines,” he says.

Norbert typically has about two weeks to get houses cleaned out before another flock of birds comes in. As soon as the turkey poults are moved from the brooder house to the grow-out buildings, the brooder is cleaned to prepare for a new flock.

“(Cargill) wants the house to be cleaned out and inspected with at least one week of down-time before new birds come in.”

In all, there are about 90 growers in Cargill’s Butterfield complex. Norbert competes with other tunnel growers, having installed all the new “bells and whistles,” as he calls them, after the 2011 tornado.

The Clear Choice

In a sense, FCS Financial helped Norbert Gabel discover his life calling. With the help of his realtor, Gabel was able to secure a loan on his farm real estate.

“FCS has always been easy to work with,” Gabel credits.

FCS Financial's Tera Dover is Norbert's loan officer. Gabel shows FCS Financial's Tera Dover how he controls the temperature and humidity.

FCS Financial’s Tera Dover appreciates Gabel’s attention to details and his openness to new ideas. “It’s very helpful to work with someone like Norbert,” Dover says. “He stays on top of his business and pays attention to the details.”

Dover is also complimentary of Gabel’s environmentally-friendly atmosphere.

The innovator has planted cedar and pine trees along the hillside just below his turkey houses to serve as a windbreak. He also recycled tin and wood after the tornado struck. The materials are being used to construct a shed for housing machinery on the farm.

Gabel has installed LED lights in the barns to improve efficiency, and he marvels at wanting to figure out a way to include solar panels in the houses.

“We just don’t recycle in this country,” he states.

Finding Life’s Calling

Norbert, with the help of long-time friend Randy Williams, who commutes daily from north of Springfield, closely monitors the turkeys. In between checks, the duo putter around the farm. This day, they continue their work on the machine shed.

“I let him play,” Norbert says of Randy. “He comes up with a lot of great ideas.”

Although Susan would love a long-distance get-a-way every now and then, Norbert says their range for road trips is three days. That gives him peace of mind while Randy monitors the flock in their absence.

At 64, Norbert doesn’t plan on retiring. He has his sights set on getting his farm paid for and being able to hire a helper.

Today, he’s found contentment high on a hilltop in Stone County, far above the James River.

Was turkey farming Norbert Gabel’s calling in life?

“I sure wish I’d have known about this many years before being forced into it,” he says.

“I always wanted to be out in the country.”
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