Gambonini Family, Farm Bureau’s Farm Family of the Year
Gambonini Family, now in its sixth generation, has milked cows in Sonoma County for 120 years
By Tim Tesconi
Just consider that for 101 years there has been a Gambonini either milking or overseeing the milking at the family’s 540 acre dairy off Lakeville Highway in Petaluma. And because milking is twice a day, 365 days a year, the clockwork routine each morning and evening amounts to nearly 75,000 trips through the milk parlor.
Children were born and older family members died but the milking went on around weddings, graduations and funerals. Cows have to be milked no matter what. It’s the basic and undisputable tenet of dairy farming that is passed from one generation to the next along with the land and cattle. It’s all part of the cow culture in the Sonoma-Marin Dairy Belt where Holstein blood lines and alfalfa hay prices are always prime topics of conversation
Today, three generations of the Gambonini family live and work on the family’s organic Gamlake Dairy ranch, which was purchased in 1913 and has continuously produced milk for the regional market. The family includes George and Margaret Gambonini, their son Frank Gambonini and his wife Stacey, both 47, and Frank and Stacey’s three daughters, Frankie, Alex and Sammie.
The Gamboninis fit the profile of the modern American farm family – hard-working stewards of their land who uphold the agricultural tradition of community involvement and farm leadership.
All three generations of the Gambonini family are being honored as Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Farm Family of the Year, an award recognizing the rural values and the work ethic the Gamboninis uphold on a daily basis. The family will receive the award at Farm Bureau’s Love of the Land celebration on July 17 at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens in Fulton.
“The Gambonini family truly represents the perseverance and dedication it takes to survive and prosper in agriculture, particularly, the dairy industry. The Gamboninis made the transition to organic milk production in 2007 because they knew it was the best way to assure a higher price for their milk so future generations of the family could continue in the dairy business,” said Tito Sasaki, president of Sonoma County Farm Bureau.
Also being honored at Love of the Land are Art Ibleto, the Pasta King, recipient of the Farm Bureau Hall of Fame Award and Fred and Nancy Cline, Sonoma Valley vintners and dedicated conservationists, recipients of the Luther Burbank Conservation Award for their caring ways in managing land and natural resources.
The Love of the Land event is open to anyone who wants to join in honoring the Gambonini family, Ibleto and Fred and Nancy Cline while celebrating Sonoma County agriculture and its rich heritage.
Frank Gambonini, a fifth generation Gambonini who has dairy farming in his DNA, and his wife Stacey, a city girl from Chicago who is learning the ways of dairy farming, are the current proprietors and resident cow tenders at the Gambonini family’s Gamlake Dairy in the hills north of Lakeville Highway. The couple lives in the main ranch house with their daughters. Oldest daughter, Frankie, is studying dairy science at Cal Poly. Alex and Sammie are students at St. Vincent’s and active in showing their dairy cattle at local fairs as members of the 4-H.
“I took over from my father, who took over from his father, with the father- to- son succession continuing back five generations to Battista Gambonini,” said Frank Gambonini, who returned to the family dairy in 1989 after earning a degree in dairy science at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He knew he wanted to be a dairy farmer since he was a toddler following his father George around the ranch in his little rubber boots, thinking he was a “big time farmer” like his Dad. That childhood perception has become reality as he manages the day-to-day operation of the family dairy.
“Dairy ranching is all I ever wanted to do,” he said. “I love the outdoors and the cows.” He said the way-of-life is the tradeoff for the 365-day-a-year work schedule.
Margaret Gambonini said like his father and grandfather before him Frank has passion and commitment for dairy farming.
“Dairying is a business and a lifestyle that requires you to put your heart and soul into it,” said Margaret Gambonini.
Frank’s great, great grandfather Battista Gambonini, who emigrated from Switzerland, arrived in Petaluma in 1868. He found his first job working on the Brown Ranch in Hicks Valley. He worked for other dairy ranchers for nine years before having money to lease his own dairy ranch. He continued leasing ranches until 1908 when he was able to purchase a portion of the LeBaron Ranch near Valley Ford.
Battista’s son Silvio Gambonini eventually took over the family dairy, moving the operation to their present 540 acre ranch in 1913.
Investments have been made over the years to keep the dairy farming operation economically viable and less labor intensive. In 1989 when Frank returned home from college to work on the dairy, his parents invested in the remodeling of the milking parlor even though milk prices were at one of their cyclical low points. At that time, George and Margaret said if Frank was making the commitment to stay on the farm then he should have a milking barn that is more efficient. They wanted it better for their son than it was for them, part of the family support essential for the transition from generation to generation.
In 2007, Frank and Stacey converted to organic milk production, which required many changes in both their thinking and farm management. They milk 250-270 cows and sell their milk to Sierra Organics. Frank and Stacey value being certified organic and are proud of the milk they produce for consumers in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Stacey and Frank Gambonini recently celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary. Stacey, who grew up in a large Irish-Catholic family in the Chicago suburbs, said she is always learning about the milk business and the dairy culture that now defines her life.
“Sometimes I feel as if I am having an out-of-body experience when I walk into the house and Frank has his face in Hoard’s Dairymen and one of the girls is reading Holstein World.’’ said Stacey. But, she said, ranch life has instilled character and a work ethic in her daughters, which makes her proud.
Stacey doesn’t get involved in milking or artificially inseminating the cows but is focusing her creativity and organization skills in ranch beautification, which is important to her. She has revamped the yard around the ranch house and landscaped the entrance to the ranch. She is planning a makeover for the farm yard near the milk parlor, barns and corrals.
Frank and Stacey are active in agricultural and dairy industry organizations including Farm Bureau, Western United Dairymen and the North Bay Dairy Herd Improvement Association. Frank helps coach the dairy cattle judging team at Petaluma High School, which last year won the national title and the opportunity to compete at an international dairy judging contest in Scotland. Two of his daughters were on the team. Stacey is a member of the North Bay Dairywomen.
The Gambonini’s Gamlake Dairy has been honored twice by the Sonoma County Fair as “Dairy of the Year.” The first time was in 1989 when Frank’s parents George and Margaret Gambonini operated the dairy. Last year, the fair honored Frank and Stacey Gambonini with the Dairy of the Year Award. The award not only recognized their stellar dairy management but their community service and agriculture leadership.
“Being recognized by your peers for how you run your dairy is a great honor,” said Frank.