Florida Plan Preserves Historic Number of Agricultural Operations

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Today, the Governor and Cabinet approved the preservation of approximately 18,279.38 acres of working agricultural land through cost-effective conservation easements totaling $57,600,705, which prevent future development of the land and allow agriculture operations to continue to contribute to Florida’s economy and the production of food, timber, and other resources vital to the prosperity of Florida. Today’s nine purchases are the most land acquisitions through the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Rural and Family Lands Protection Program ever approved at a meeting of the Governor and Cabinet in the history of the program.

Commissioner of Agriculture Wilton Simpson said, “Today’s partnerships increase the total land preserved by the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program to approximately 86,580 acres over 67 conservation easements. This is an incredible step forward for our program, and I am confident that it will only continue to grow. Food security is a matter of national security, and by protecting and preserving these lands that have an immense amount of economic impact to food and agricultural production in our state, we are securing the livelihood of Florida. Thanks to the Governor and my fellow Cabinet members as well as the landowners who are partnering with us on this program, we are working to ensure that 100 years from now we can still farm in the state of Florida.”

All of the nine properties are located within the Florida Wildlife Corridor, which was established into state law in 2021 through the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act as a priority of then Senate President Wilton Simpson.

Rural and Family Lands Protection Program conservation easements approved during the May 23, 2023, meeting of the Governor and Cabinet:

Keen Family Ranch

The Keen Family Ranch acquisition consists of 1,071 acres in DeSoto County. The Keen Family Ranch is a working cow/calf operation located within the Florida Wildlife Corridor and is enrolled in the FDACS BMP Program. Located in the Peace River Watershed, it will build on a corridor of conservation lands connecting to protected lands in the Myakka Watershed. The ranch supports habitats for multiple species, including bald eagles, sandhill cranes, fox squirrels, and crested caracaras. Horse Creek runs through the property, which is the largest tributary to the Peace River. Additionally, Brandy Branch and Buzzard Roost Branch are smaller tributaries on the ranch that flow into Horse Creek. The Peace River supplies drinking water to more than one million people in the surrounding counties of Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota. The health of the Peace River impacts Charlotte Harbor Estuary, an important recreational fishery and that supports the economic vitality of southwest Florida.

Cow Creek Ranch

The Cow Creek Ranch acquisition consists of 3,496 acres in St. Lucie County. Cow Creek Ranch is a working cattle operation located within the Florida Wildlife Corridor and is enrolled in the FDACS BMP Program. The property is a mix of old Florida improved pasture, oak, cabbage palm hammocks, palmetto flats, pine islands, and cypress swamps. The Larson family legacy in the Florida ranching industry spans over 75 years. They were early adopters of Best Management Practices for conservation and land quality. Basinger Grade, a Florida historic trail, runs through the property. The dirt road from Ft. Pierce to Basinger was traveled by horse and ox-drawn buggies. Wildlife observed on the property includes the crested caracara, gopher tortoise, eastern indigo snake, eastern diamondback rattlesnake, and American alligator. Wading birds are plentiful, including wood storks and Florida sandhill cranes. Bald eagles, red-tail hawks, and swallow-tailed kites are also present. Game on the property includes turkey, deer, and hogs.

Natural Bridge Creek

The Natural Bridge Creek acquisition consists of 1,945 acres in Walton County along the Alabama state line at County Road 181. The Natural Bridge Creek property contains a working timber operation located within the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Natural Bridge Creek, a sand-bottomed seepage stream, transects the subject property and disappears underground in two locations as sink and rise formations in the limestone. This geologic sink/rise formation is reported to be the westernmost in the Florida Aquifer. In addition to its important natural hydrologic function, the property is also a showpiece for longleaf pine habitat, one of the most intact examples in the region. The property is enrolled in the Florida Forest Stewardship Program and is a learning campus recognized by the Longleaf Alliance, state and federal agencies. Protection of this property will sustain a unique longleaf pine timber operation and provide a buffer for Natural Bridge Creek, protect surface water, functional wetlands, aquifer recharge, and preserve and protect numerous species, such as the threatened gopher tortoise.

Charlie Creek Ranch

The Charlie Creek acquisition consists of 1,027 acres in Hardee County. Charlie Creek Ranch is a working commercial cattle operation located within the Florida Wildlife Corridor and is enrolled in the FDACS BMP Program. The current project is adjacent to two other Charlie Creek conservation easements acquired in 2017 and 2022, respectively, and represents the final phase of the Charlie Creek Ranch project. The property contains a mix of improved pasture and native range, as well as bottomland hardwood natural areas and multiple wetland habitats, including an open marsh and wildlife travel corridors. Charlie Creek, a tributary of the Peace River, flows through the property for more than three miles. This property is adjacent to the Fussell Old Town Creek Rural and Family Lands Protection Program conservation easement and is within one mile of the Old Town Creek Watershed Florida Forever project. A platted subdivision has been established northeast of the property and phosphate mining is north of the property. The ranch supports habitat for a wide range of threatened species, including the gopher tortoise, Sherman’s fox squirrel, and various listed wading birds.

The River Property

The River Property acquisition consists of 3,068 acres in south Highlands County along the Kissimmee River, north of Lake Okeechobee. The property is a working commercial cattle operation located within the Florida Wildlife Corridor and is enrolled in the FDACS BMP Program. The River Property includes several water control structures on the ranch that retain and filter water before release into the Kissimmee River. The proposed conservation easement protects the integrity and function of Southwest Florida’s working landscapes and ensures opportunities for viable agricultural activities on working lands threatened by development. The River Property is near the Pelaez and Sons Rural and Family Lands Protection Program conservation easement, several USDA/NRCS Wetlands Reserve Program easements, and several Southwest Florida Water Management District properties. The property supports habitat for several listed species, including the gopher tortoise and crested caracara.

G-3 Ranch

The G-3 Ranch acquisition consists of 3,634 acres in south Polk County, approximately six miles southwest of Frostproof. The ranch is predominantly a commercial Brangus cow/calf operation located within the Florida Wildlife Corridor and is enrolled in the FDACS BMP Program. The ranch also harvests hay and sod. G-3 Ranch contains over 1,000 acres of improved pasture, with the remaining uplands consisting of pine flatwoods and a few small patches of scrub. The property supports an abundant population of wildlife including threatened species such as the eastern indigo snake and gopher tortoise. G-3 Ranch is five miles from two Rural and Family Lands Protection Program projects – Rocking Bar W Ranch and Charlie Creek Cattle Company – and is in the vicinity of the Old Town Creek Watershed and Lake Wales Ridge Ecosystem Florida Forever projects. The development potential for G-3 Ranch is high, as the property is bordered on the east and west by residential development.

Grubb Ranch

The Grubb Ranch acquisition consists of 549 acres in east Hardee County, approximately five miles west of Sebring. Grubb Ranch is a working cattle operation located within the Florida Wildlife Corridor and is enrolled in the FDACS BMP Program for cow/calf operations and has hay production as a secondary use. Grubb Ranch is adjacent to the Sandy Gully Rural and Family Lands Protection Program conservation easement acquired in 2019. Little Charley Bowlegs Creek is a headwater of the Peace River that runs through Grubb Ranch. The Peace River is a major drinking water source for the residents of DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota Counties. Grubb Ranch is within the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a half-mile from Highlands Hammock State Park, and one mile from the Lake Wales Ridge Florida Forever Project.

Sandy Gully

The Sandy Gully acquisition consists of 643.38 acres in Highlands County, north of Highlands Hammock State Park and west of Sebring. Sandy Gully is a cow/calf operation with hay and timber as secondary operations located within the Florida Wildlife Corridor and is enrolled in the FDACS BMP Program. The project is within the Sandy Gully Ranch Rural and Family Lands Protection Program project and is adjacent to a 2,457-acre Rural and Family Lands Protection Program conservation easement acquired in 2019. The current acquisition will complete the Sandy Gully Ranch Rural and Family Lands Protection Program project. The project contributes to an ecological network of public conservation lands that include Highlands County’s Sun ‘N Lake Preserve and Highlands Hammock State Park. The project’s ecological value lies in the relatively large scrub-imperiled natural community.

Ryals Cattle Company

The Ryals Cattle Company acquisition consists of 2,846 acres within the larger 4,200-acre Ryals Ranch. Ryals Ranch is in north Charlotte County approximately 12 miles east of Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte. Ryals Ranch is a commercial cattle ranch located within the Florida Wildlife Corridor and is enrolled in the FDACS BMP program for cow/calf operations. The Ryals family has been ranching in southwest Florida since the 1920s. Prairie Creek, a headwater of the Peace River, flows through the property for more than a mile. The property contains a mix of improved pasture and native range, as well as several depression marshes. This property is adjacent to Charlotte County’s Prairie Creek Preserve and is two miles north of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fred C. Babcock/Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area. The ranch supports habitat for threatened species, including the gopher tortoise and various listed wading birds.

Also, during today’s Cabinet meeting, an amendment to Rule 51-7, F.A.C., was adopted to refine the rules that outline the procedures of the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program which will make the process more streamlined and user friendly for both applicants to the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program and management of the program. Additionally, the amendment included a revision to the application form to include Best Management Practices requirements.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services created the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program in 2001 to protect working agricultural lands threatened by other uses, such as development. Additional details on today’s purchases can be found hereapplication/pdf ].

Commissioner Simpson has been involved in Florida’s land conservation policy issues long before becoming Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture. As Senate President, Simpson worked on legislation and budget issues to protect our precious natural resources. For the 2022-2023 fiscal year, Simpson secured more than $300 million for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. Simpson has also worked tirelessly to support farmers, ranchers, and producers in their shared goal of protecting and restoring Florida’s natural resources.

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