Central Florida’s Rural Neighbor
By David Wright
Central Florida is well-known as a global tourist destination, with 59 million visitors last year. It is also known for its Space Coast, boasting a cruise port that is projected to soon be the largest in the world and an evolving spaceport that will see more than a dozen private launches this year. Additionally, it is known for its emerging biotechnology cluster in the Medical City area, with over a billion dollars of investment in the ground. And, of course, it is known for its beaches and sunshine.
In most circles, however, Central Florida is not known for its cattle ranching heritage.
“Hiding in Plain Sight”
It should be, according to Erik Jacobsen, general manager of Deseret Ranches of Florida, a 295,000-acre ranch in Brevard, Orange, and Osceola counties. “Most people think of Texas or Montana when they think of cattle ranching, but Florida is home to several of the most productive and storied ranches in the country. They are just hiding in plain sight.”
While millions of residents and tourists travel the Beachline Expressway between Orlando and Cocoa each year, relatively few realize they have driven across 11 miles of the Deseret Ranch. The same is true for those who travel along US 192 from St. Cloud to Melbourne, with the adjacent pastures, flatwoods, and wetlands doing little to call attention to themselves.
Part of the reason Deseret blends in so well, explained Jacobsen, is that Deseret is a cow-calf operation. Each year, Deseret’s 42,500 mother cows produce 35,000 calves, but all of those cattle are rotated in small herds between pastures to better protect the forage resources. It adds up to almost 18 million pounds of beef produced on the ranch each year.
Cattle ranching is nothing new to Florida. In fact, the state has almost 500 years of cattle ranching history, starting with Ponce de Leon and Don Diego de Maldonado bringing the first cattle to the area in the early 1500s. Ranching started in earnest a few decades later with the founding of St. Augustine.
Deseret Ranch has been part of Florida’s ranching history for the last 64 years. Deseret was founded in 1950 when Henry Moyle, then a leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, came to the southeastern U.S. looking for farming or ranching property that could serve as an investment for the church and a resource to feed people in times of need. He found several large tracts of cut-over timber land and within two years had pieced together the majority of the ranch. According to Gene Crosby, a long-time cattle manager for Deseret who came to the ranch as a boy in 1950, “The whole area was different then. There were just a couple of dirt roads on the whole property and you would get stuck coming into the houses and stuck going out. But it was great to live in the country and we did a lot together as kids.”
Much has changed in ranching since Deseret was founded. The ranch made major advances in its cattle breeding and production when it began to work closely with University of Florida researchers in the 1970s and then instituted a genetic program and three-breed rotation in the 1980s. Deseret continues its genetic program, producing its own replacement heifers and bulls and running genetic tests on all of its elite cows and bulls. The ultimate goal remains the same: to produce offspring that are efficient, adapted to the environment, and produce the high-quality beef a consumer is looking for at the end of the day.
Accomplishing these goals requires application of the latest ranching science and technology. As Jacobsen explained, Deseret recently developed a new cattle cross-breed: “The bull was from Australia, the cow was from Texas, and the embryo was flown in on a plane and implanted into one of our recipient cows in Florida. All of this is designed to produce a better product.”
Besides its cattle production, Deseret Ranch also grows 1,700 acres of citrus, 1,000 acres of row crops (primarily potatoes), several hundred acres of sod, and harvests palm trees and timber. Across the state, cattle ranching is a $4 billion business, part of the more than $100 billion that agriculture adds each year to Florida’s economy. It is easy to see why agriculture is still considered one of the three major legs of the Florida economy, along with tourism and construction.
Florida’s farms and ranches come in all shapes and sizes. Deseret has always felt that scale gives it some advantages. On a small operation, a rancher may be a cowboy, agronomist, mechanic, and accountant all rolled into one, whereas Deseret breaks those responsibilities out among its 80 employees, allowing them to specialize. “Still, when it comes right down to it,” said Jacobsen, who holds an animal science degree from the University of Florida and an MBA from Brigham Young University, “most of our interests and concerns are shared by all ranchers – and most businesses for that matter: how do I control costs, how do I diversify revenue, how do I develop people, how do I protect resources?”
One characteristic that distinguishes farming and ranching from other businesses, however, is that the primary asset is the land itself. Deseret’s land is located in the middle of the rapidly growing east central Florida region. “As ranchers, we are landowners, and as landowners we are tied to the region. Our futures are linked, so we want to see the region succeed,” said David Wright, a property manager for the ranch. “We are fortunate that we can take a generational view, and we encourage leaders in the region to look out not just 10 or 20 years but even 50 years and beyond. That’s not easy to do, but we think it’s the right thing to do.”
“When you look at important regional issues, the things the legislature takes up every session, many of those affect us,” said Jacobsen, who was raised near Lakeland. “Transportation initiatives like new rail and highway corridors, water supply plans, species protection, new water quality standards – these are things we deal with every day.” For that reason, the ranch has supported regional planning efforts such as Naturally Central Florida, MyRegion.org, and the Central Florida Water Initiative.
Most recently, Governor Scott invited Deseret Ranch to participate as a member of the East Central Florida Corridor Task Force, a public sector initiative to plan for new or enhanced regional transportation corridors between Orlando and southern Brevard County. The task force is analyzing ways to connect economic centers throughout the region, from both transportation and economic development perspectives.
Challenges in Water
At both the regional and state level, water is also a key concern and is expected to be the focus of the 2015 legislative session. That focus is well-deserved, as east central Florida will face water quality and quantity challenges in the future. Deseret began building stormwater retention reservoirs on the edge of its property decades ago to capture and treat the majority of its stormwater before it enters the St. Johns River. And Deseret has long emphasized regional water supply planning; most of the water supplying Cocoa, Rockledge and other communities along the coast already comes from Deseret property, and more is now being sought by other municipalities.
“Most of us turn on the tap and never think about where the water comes from. It is important to remember that agriculture needs water, too. What happens to working ranch lands if all the water has been exported to some distant city?” asked Jacobsen.
Given its location, Deseret Ranch is certain to play a key role in the growth of east central Florida. Deseret believes its commitment to long-term planning, protection of key natural resources, and ongoing agricultural operations will help preserve a high quality of life for present and future residents in this region. It is also committed to continuing its contribution to Florida’s centuries-old ranching heritage. As Crosby, the long-time cattle manager at Deseret, observed, “Agriculture – producing food for people – is going to be a good business for a long time.”