500 YEARS – Florida Weekly

As Florida marks the half-millennium of cattle ranching this year, the industry tackles challenges from development.

FROM TOP: Seminole Indian cowboys Fred Smith and his grandfather, Charley Micco, in 1950. Fred later became president of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Cowboy Brian Boxson leads a small herd of cows and calves toward the cattle pens at Blackbeard’s Ranch in Manatee County.

IT ALL BEGAN THAT WINTER DAY in 1521 when Ponce de León came ashore near Charlotte Harbor on Southwest Florida’s coast, looking to create a permanent settlement. It was his second voyage to the land he had dubbed La Florida and this time he had 200 men, about 50 horses and six cattle, hardy Andalusian stock that came from Spain. They were the first cattle to arrive in North America and became the foundation of what became Florida cattle ranching.

Ponce de León’s effort was short-lived and ill-fated. He was mortally wounded in a battle with the Calusa people. The group abandoned the would-be settlement and took the conquistador to Cuba, where he died. But the cattle remained. They survived and even thrived, ranging free through centuries of raging wars and the rise of cattle barons on the pioneer frontier, becoming the backbone of Florida’s fledgling economy.

Half a millennium later, cattle ranching and the cattle industry are still a backbone of Florida’s economy, but threatened by growth that brings about 1,000 people a day to Florida and development that devours about 100,000 acres of land a year — equal to 156 square miles.

A lone cow has a pasture all to itself on the nearly 10,000-acre JB Ranch in Collier County. PHOTO BY MARY WOZNIAK

Ranchlands make prime targets for the next subdivisions or building projects, along with roads, other infrastructure and amenities necessary to serve the needs of that growing population. Developers are willing to spend the money it takes to gobble that land up — sometimes for even double the price.

Preserving the ranchlands left are pivotal to saving Florida’s water quantity, quality and wildlife, and meeting the challenges of climate change, scientists say.

“They are essential for accomplishing our wildlife and water resource conservation goals in Florida,” said Tom Hoctor, director of the Center for Landscape Conservation Planning and a professor at the University of Florida.

Now groups that may have been adversarial in the past — ranchers on one side, conservationists and environmentalists on the other — have banded together to try to reach those goals. They’re talking about various conservation programs and new technology, including artificial intelligence, satellite and drone-based “remote sensing,” to try to measure and quantify what the ecosystem services ranchlands provide are really worth to the state and its residents, then to convince residents that they are worth providing incentives to ranchers to continue receiving them.

Jim Strickland, managing partner of Blackbeard’s Ranch and owner of Strickland Ranch, poses in his yellow slicker with his horse, Grey Lady. PHOTOS BY VANDY MAJOR

As Florida marks the 500th anniversary of cattle ranching, the focus is on the future.

“The greatest pressure on the viability of cattle ranching in the state is the unrelenting statistics of Florida’s human population growth,” wrote Hilary Swain and Betsey Boughton, in a June article in the Florida Cattleman and Livestock Journal.

Ms. Swain is executive director of the Archbold Biological Station, a nonprofit research, education and conservation organization in Venice. Ms. Boughton is director of research at Buck Island Ranch, a 10,500-acre working ranch in Highlands County owned and operated by Archbold Station, which provides a platform to research the functioning of grazing lands and sustainable ranching.

Beefmaster cows are driven across a sweeping expanse of Florida prairie at Blackbeard’s Ranch.

“How can the cattle industry in Florida remain sustainable in the face of such an onslaught?” they wrote. “First, remain financially viable. Second, to be recognized and supported by society as a land use that forms the backbone of the essential green infrastructure for a sustainable Florida.’

There’s that word “backbone” again. Florida cattle ranchers have had a steady supply throughout five centuries and it remains stronger than ever. As the challenges swirl around them, the cowboy culture remains constant, one rooted in love and respect for the land, its resources and in which a handshake is as good as their word.

The 6 million-acre secret

Cattle ranching in Florida is a secret hiding in plain sight. It’s probably one of the last things people who flock here for subtropical sunshine and beaches would associate with Florida.


Yet ranchland covers about 6 million acres, or more than one-sixth the acreage of the entire state.

Florida has about 15,000 cattle ranches with an approximate economic impact of $900 million, according to the Range Cattle Research and Education Center at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. They range from small operations to 12,000 cattle and up.

Florida consistently has eight or 10 of the top 25 ranches in the country for cattle, said Jim Handley, executive vice president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association.

Ranches in Florida are cow-calf operations. That means ranchers maintain herds of cows to breed calves, which are then shipped to other states after weaning to be “finished” by grain or grass feeding until they reach maturity.

Florida has an estimated 1.69 million cattle and calves as of Jan. 1, 2021, according to the USDA southern region. Currently the state is 13th in the nation.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Brian Broxson and Cassidy Jones lead cows through a pasture flooded with 4 inches of rain the night before. Calves in a pen on Blackbeard’s Ranch. Cows and calves are herded into pens where calves are separated out and sent to the livestock market.

But cattle ranches provide a lot more than beef to Florida’s population. Scientists refer to these benefits as ecosystem services. They include: Carbon sequestration (taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis and putting it into the soil, where it’s bound up permanently), animal biodiversity, wildlife habitat, wildlife, wetlands protection, water storage and filtration. This is what scientists and cattle ranchers want to measure and quantify.

“What we want to show the 21.5 million people of Florida is, what does this land do for them that they don’t know it does?” said Jim Strickland, a rancher who is vice chairman of the Florida Conservation Group, which advocates for Florida agriculture and conservation. “Carbon sequestration, how much? We want to show them what is it worth to you to have a wildlife corridor for endangered species habitat, for the connectivity of water, for the cleaning of water by having sheet flow across these lands, by having all these ephemeral wetlands.”


Conserving through easements

At the University of Florida, Mr. Hoctor also oversees and manages the Florida Ecological Greenways Network, a database of land needed to protect habitat and wildlife migration routes throughout the state. There are nearly 3.2 million acres of ranchland in the top three priority lands of the greenways network. Only 555,703 acres of ranchland are protected.

The network is also one of the major criteria for determining lands suitable for the Florida Forever program, the state’s conservation and recreation lands acquisition program.

Currently, the trend is to protect more and more ranch acreage using conservation easements through programs like Florida Forever, Mr. Hoctor said.

A conservation easement buys the development rights of the property so that it cannot be developed any more than it currently is at the time the easement goes into effect. The private landowner still owns the property, is responsible for continuing to manage it and pay taxes on it. But the land must remain as it is in perpetuity.

The Florida Conservation Group tries to educate and assist people in getting conservation easements on their ranches or timberland.

That’s where Julie Morris comes in. She is the Florida and Gulf programs manager for the National Wildlife Refuge Association, a wildlife biologist with extensive knowledge and experience in land acquisition and easement programs.

Ms. Morris is on the board of directors of the Florida Conservation Group and works with Mr. Strickland and Mr. Hoctor. She and Mr. Strickland help guide people through the process of protecting their lands through various programs like Florida Forever, the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, and the federal Wetland Reserve Easement program.

A cypress dome on JB Ranch in Immokalee, which features several different habitats. PHOTO BY MARY WOZNIAK

The landowners, or in this case, the ranchers, are basically selling their development rights for about 50 cents on the dollar, Ms. Morris said. It’s a real bargain for the state or federal or county government purchasing the rights because that land is protected, but still stays on the tax rolls.

Eight generations of ranching

Rancher Cary Lightsey is a big fan of conservation easements. He owns and operates Lightsey Cattle Co. with his brother Layne Lightsey and their extended families. It’s based in Lake Wales, in Central Florida.

He is in charge of 12 ranches in Polk, Highlands and Osceola counties, working about 10,700 cattle. The family has been in the cattle ranching business since the 1850s. They’ve won many awards for environmental stewardship.

Mr. Lightsey got his first conservation easement in 1988. Thirty-three years later, 92% of his land is in conservation easements. “My goal is to get to about 95,” he said.


“It’s important to me when I die that our land continues being ranches,” Mr. Lightsey said. “Whoever marries a future Lightsey, it can’t be developed.”

This is his family’s heritage, he said. “We probably sacrificed a lot of money. But I was never raised to think money was more important than land.”

The eighth generation of his cattle ranching family are on the ranch right now, Mr. Lightsey said.

“I want to tell the world, tell the U.S., tell the state we’re in it for the duration. Most of my spare time is spent talking to people doing land easements. The ones who have sold land — I haven’t met one yet that wasn’t disappointed. “

Ms. Morris characterized cattle ranchlands as “this wonderful mosaic of natural and improved pasture,” and the vast majority have a lot of natural habitat left, she said.

“So when we’re talking about what is the land use that is going to keep viable populations of the Florida panther, of our other threatened and endangered species, these species live in and depend on cattle ranching,” she said. “When we’re talking about the thing closest to pristine or the closest to native habitat, ranching is that land use.”

Cassidy Jones oversees cows being separated in the pens at Blackbeard’s Ranch. PHOTO BY VANDY MAJOR

Besides the panther, federally listed species ranchlands provide habitat for include the crested caracara, wood stork, snail kite and Florida grasshopper sparrow. Other wildlife species that live on ranchland include the Florida sandhill crane, burrowing owl, southeastern American kestrel, bald eagle, swallow tailed kite and short-tailed hawk.

The majority of cattle ranchers want to keep their land, Ms. Morris said. She said she knows many landowners representing hundreds of thousands of acres who are willing to sell their development rights in order to keep on doing what they’re doing and manage it in perpetuity.

The problem is a lack of money to buy those rights. Programs like Florida Forever have suffered through several years of underfunding, she said. This year, the state Legislature set aside $400 million for Florida Forever projects. It is a welcome move, but the funding must continue in order to clear the backlog of projects that have built up during the lean years. Recently, she finalized an easement that was first applied for and vetted in 2009 — 12 years ago.

Cracker cow and calf at JB Ranch. PHOTO BY MARY WOZNIAK

Measuring the value

If most ranchers want to keep their land, continue to work cattle and provide habitat conservation and water preservation, why don’t they just say no to development?

In ranching, “the profit margins are very, very slim,” Ms. Morris said. “You have a few bad years where there’s low (calf) prices. You have kids that are going to college or someone gets sick. You know your only asset is this family place.” Suddenly a developer comes in and offers you twice what your land is worth, or even exponentially what it’s worth, she said. “Without conservation easements as an option it becomes a sell-or-keep scenario, depending on the financial status of the owners.”

Grazing cows under billowing clouds at JB Ranch in Immokalee. PHOTO BY MARY WOZNIAK

Another option to help ranchers may come from the work of The Florida Climate Smart Agriculture Work Group, which explores how farmers, ranchers and forest landowners can maintain their livelihoods and remain profitable while providing and even enhancing environmental protection.

The group’s goal is to quantify the environmental services ranchlands provide and determine what kind of incentive ranchers should get to provide them.

Mr. Strickland is co-chair of the group, which is a collaboration of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) and the nonprofit organization Solutions from the Land.

The premise is that “farmers and foresters and ranchers forever have been managing their land for profit, but it’s tough these days to make money in farming and forestry,” said J. Scott Angle, vice president for agriculture and natural resources at UF/IFAS. “The margins are quite low. But on the other hand, these same groups of people have always been sequestering carbon in the soil, providing for clean water and enhancing wildlife habitat. And so we feel that the land managers need to be rewarded for the services that they are providing.”


“It’s almost like if you had a home and the city decided they wanted to take half of your property and put a highway through it because it’s for the good of the community,” he said. “The homeowner is going to say, ‘No thanks. You’ve got to pay me for that.’” The farmers and ranchers and foresters have been providing these services for free forever, he said. “It’s just time for society to recognize all of the ecosystem services, all the good things that are being done and find a way to reward the landowners for that.”

The method they will use is artificial intelligence. The university now has the second fastest AI supercomputer in the country, Mr. Angle said. It’s called the HiPerGator.


A lot of hard research is involved, he said. It takes a long time to measure carbon sequestration.

“And society doesn’t have five years, 10 years, 20 years to wait for all of that. The belief is that we can use AI to make some of these hard decisions much more quickly.”

There is a vast amount of existing data, but it’s not organized and in one place, he said. “It is so vast it becomes almost impossible for a human to sit down and try to make sense of it.”

That’s where the AI supercomputer comes in. The computer can look at all the data and begin to find patterns that will help answer these questions regarding the efficacy and the value of ecosystem services, he said.

Then the point is to create a tool to measure it and then be able to compensate farmers and ranchers and timber growers for the services they provide.


Then a kind of “free rider argument,” may come from those in opposition, Mr. Hoctor said. “Free riding” is an economic concept which means benefiting from a collective good without expending effort or paying for it.

In that case, opponents would say, ‘Well, why should I pay a rancher to keep producing resources that he’s always produced?”’ he said. “’Why should I buy the cow if I can get the milk for free?’ Well, that’s because if you keep thinking that way, eventually that ranch isn’t going to be a ranch anymore, it’s going to be developed.”

AI can also help in predicting what climate change will be like in the future for these industries, Mr. Angle said. This is important because we need to be adapting to those changes now rather than wait until it’s worse, he said. “And then it’s almost too late.”

Archbold Station also is doing innovative research with satellite-based and drone-based remote sensing. Ms. Boughton, research director at Buck Island Ranch, co-leads the project with Xukai Zhang.

In simple terms, it basically is measuring energy from wavelengths of light coming from the earth and using it to estimate plant productivity.

The project is described this way in a blog from the Archbold website: “The objective of satellite-based remote sensing is to help us understand the Earth better by recording and analyzing the energy from visible and invisible light or wavelengths reflected or emitted from the Earth’s surface.” Archbold Station has been among the first to use this cutting-edge technology to measure productivity of plants growing every year in different types of cattle pastures in South-Central Florida. The project is being conducted in collaboration with several universities.

“What was is gone”

New technologies cannot be developed without recognizing the history they are built on.

The Seminole tribe played a strong, pivotal role in the development of cattle ranching in Florida and retains that role today.

The tribe’s land is among the top largest five ranches in the state of Florida and probably in the top 15 in the U.S., said Alex Johns, the tribe’s executive director of agriculture over land holdings. They also keep green space from being developed and provide protection for water and wildlife.

The Seminole tribe operation has “north of 12,000 head of cattle,” Mr. Johns said. Ranches spread over five counties — Okeechobee, Glades, Highlands, Hendry and Collier. They have about 110,000 acres of improved grazing and 70,000 to 80,000 acres of natural grazing, Mr. Johns said. Everything is under direct supervision of Seminole Tribe Inc. of Florida.

Mr. Johns personally owns the First American Land & Cattle company. He is proud of the fact that cattle ranching has reached its 500th year anniversary.

“To my family it’s really important,” he said. The Native Americans who eventually became known as the Seminole tribe reach as far back as the first Spanish settlers, he said. As far as livelihood, the tribe historically was nomadic in the early days and following the cattle kept them mobile, provided protein and “allowed us to fight three Seminole Wars and survive and stay strong in Florida,” Mr. Johns said.

Gene Lollis, immediate past president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, looked to the future in his final letter to the membership in June.

The guiding words for the past year were “Open Gates Open Minds,” wrote Mr. Lollis, who also is manager of Buck Island Ranch. That means ranchers had discussions with government agencies, scientists, conservationists and the public to share facts about research and the value of cattle ranching. The gate must remain open.

Ranchers have to realize that cattle ranching is nothing like it used to be, he wrote. “What was is gone and, most importantly, what will be is what we are willing to make it be.” They can make a better future by “analyzing and thinking of our land and water as a living breathing balance system,” he said. “And our system is interconnected and any one thing out of balance causes a disruption within that system.”

This a tipping point, he said.

“Now my question to everyone. Are we going to ride off into the sunset or are we looking forward to the rising sun each day to do what we do — sustaining and taking care of God’s waters, wildlife, and green earth? So let us get up, show up, participate, and never give up on the lifestyle that is the backbone of our country.” ¦

In the KNOW

The top five Florida counties, number of cattle:

Okeechobee, with 175,000 cattle and calves; Highlands, 120,000; Osceola, 97,000, Polk, 92,000, and Hardee, 70,000.

In the Southwest Florida and Palm Beach County area, Lee County has 10,800 cattle and calves; Collier County, 10,400; Charlotte County, 25,000; and Palm Beach County, 9,200.

— Source USDA