zMormon Newsroom

Church-Affiliated Ranch Balances Agriculture and Conservation in Central Florida

1 APRIL 2016

SALT LAKE CITY — 

Long before the Orlando International Airport, the Space Coast (the area around Kennedy Space Center) and Disney World were on the map in central Florida, a cattle ranch and agricultural operation with Mormon ties was working to protect Florida’s ecosystem.

Deseret Cattle and Citrus, affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has been going strong for 65 years. This commercial farming and ranching operation is situated on about 295,000 acres in parts of three Florida counties between Orlando and Melbourne.

Early on, Deseret managers came to see themselves as land and natural resource caretakers, not just cattle ranchers and citrus farmers. Being “resource right” has been a guiding principle in ranch operations for decades. Ranch general manager Erik Jacobsen puts it this way: “We operate in a natural system. Because we are in a natural system, Mother Nature kind of requires you to operate in a way that’s sustainable.”

Sustainable resource management has been a key to Deseret’s success. The ranch’s environmental ethic revolves around principled conservation of wildlife, wetlands and water resources. A trademark characteristic in everything the ranch does is to operate in harmony with the land and natural systems, whether in managing cattle and citrus or in protecting deer, turkey, quail, alligators, cypress trees and wading bird habitat.

David Wright, Deseret’s land and governmental affairs manager, explains, “We try to do what's right for the environment. Sometimes that means going above and beyond what's required by regulation or law.”

The ranch is home to more than 350 species of wildlife, including almost 250 species of birds. Sandhill cranes and the threatened wood stork flourish in the area. Other species of wildlife include white-tailed deer, American alligator, Osceola turkey, wild hog, Florida bass and nesting bald eagles. 

Purpose

Deseret Cattle and Citrus is one of the Church’s investment farms, which operate as taxable commercial ventures. Unlike the Church’s welfare farms, which provide food and commodities for bishops’ storehouses to help the poor and needy, investment farms and ranches support the Church’s mission and principles by serving as a rainy-day fund. In administering Church financial resources, Church leaders practice the same sound economic principles they teach, such as avoiding debt, living within one’s means and setting aside savings for a rainy day.

Former Church President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008) explained why the Church invests a portion of its rainy-day savings in farms and ranches:

Prudent management requires that [the reserves of the Church] be put to use. In that process, we have purchased and hold some good, productive farms. They are well operated under capable management, and they yield a conservative rate of return. We have felt that good farms, over a long period, represent a safe investment where the assets of the Church may be preserved and enhanced, while at the same time they are available as an agricultural resource to feed people should there come a time of need.

Cattle and Citrus

“Our core business is cattle production,” emphasizes Jacobsen, who began his career at the ranch as a cowboy in the mid-1980s. The ranch maintains a herd of approximately 45,000 beef cattle and has developed its own breeds that are well adapted to Florida’s semi-tropical climate.

“The temperatures and humidity can be pretty tough on cattle at times,” observes ranch operations manager David Genho, “so we’ve developed breeds that leverage the positive characteristics of Angus, Brahman, Simmental, Red Poll and South Devon.”

Deseret has over 1,600 acres of citrus with approximately 200,000 trees. Juice oranges, mostly Valencias, are the mainstay of the groves and are sold to large juice plants in Florida. Other varieties include navel oranges, Sunburst tangerines and Orlando tangelos for the fresh market.

Ranch employees include cowboys, cattle foremen, citrus crew, tractor drivers, heavy equipment crew and mechanics, in addition to managers and accountants. Because of the ranch’s scale, it can employ specialists such as a natural resource manager and a full-time wildlife biologist. The environmental specialists work hand-in-glove with the ranching and farming employees.

“We try to be world class in our agricultural operations, but also in our environmental responsibility,” says Jacobsen. “We've been able to manage the ranch in such a way that the two fit well together. We’ve developed the ranch to have a mosaic of pastures, wetlands and forested areas which create both wildlife habitat and grazing for cattle.”

Water Conservation

A series of storm-water retention ponds have been built on the ranch to capture and naturally treat water before it enters the St. Johns River. The ponds function much like natural wetlands to ensure that any water leaving the ranch is of high quality.

Jug Island Reservoir, a 500-acre retention area that has created a habitat for wading birds, was awarded the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture’s Environmental Leadership Award for Water Quality. Ranch managers are in the process of permitting an additional 300-acre water retention area. “Jug Island and other water retention measures are something we started on our own initiative back in the early 90s,” said Jacobsen. “It's not been required and it's all been privately financed by the ranch.”

In the orange groves, Deseret has implemented several practices to increase irrigation efficiency and reduce fertilizer use. Canals capture rainwater, and ultra-efficient, micro-jet irrigation systems have been installed. In some pasture areas of the ranch, naturally flowing artesian wells provide irrigation water.

Most of the irrigation water comes from a canal linked to the Taylor Creek Reservoir, a major surface water supply. Pivot irrigation is utilized on about 1,100 acres of farm ground, and soil moisture sensors in the field ensure that only the minimum amount of water needed is used for the crops. Florida’s warm climate creates unique growing windows that allow for production and harvest of certain crops like potatoes used to make potato chips at times of the year that can’t be matched in colder parts of the U.S.

Natural Resources

Timber resources on the ranch include pine, cypress, hardwood and palm. Deseret allows for natural regeneration, a process where trees replace themselves with self-sown seeds, so it sometimes takes decades before timber is ready for harvest. Justin Feild, natural resources manager, notes that palm trees grow readily on the ranch: “Palms are a replenishable resource in Florida, so we harvest some of those to sell for landscaping.”

Feild also explains that a team of wildlife professionals is conducting extensive surveys to collect data over time on the species that live on the ranch: “Our surveys over the last few years show that wildlife populations on the ranch are thriving.”

The ranch has created and manages one of the state’s largest wood stork rookeries, a breeding ground for these threatened birds. “The rookery’s nesting grounds are on long, narrow islands. The surrounding water creates a moat where alligators swim around the islands and protect the nests from any kind of predators,” said Jacobsen.

Long-Range Planning

Deseret’s commitment to wise stewardship includes looking decades into the future to plan for growth in one of the fastest growing regions of the U.S. More than 10 million people will call central Florida home by 2080, according to forecasts, so ranch managers believe it’s critical to apply their best thinking now to deliberate long-range planning. By looking decades into the future, they can plan with local governments and neighboring communities for regional water supply, transportation, education, conservation and other needs.

Deseret Cattle and Citrus is in the path of growth between expanding employment centers in southeast Orlando and along the Space Coast. As more jobs are created in the region over the coming decades, growth will inevitably impact the ranch. When growth does come, ranch managers want it to result in vibrant communities that address the environment and improve quality of life.

In 2013, Florida Governor Rick Scott invited the ranch to participate in a planning task force to examine transportation corridors in east central Florida. Concurrently, Governor Scott asked the ranch to work with Osceola County to create a forward-thinking vision for unplanned Deseret property in the county. Building on a decades-long relationship, county officials worked with ranch managers to develop a long-range master plan for 133,000 acres of Deseret’s property called the “North Ranch.” Florida state law encourages such envisioning through a regulated process called “sector planning.” Informed by the work of the transportation task force, the North Ranch sector plan was completed and adopted late last year.

“This plan provides a framework to shape how our property will fit into the expansive growth projected for our region over the decades to come,” says Jacobsen. “We want to protect what we all love about living in central Florida by fostering the creation of vibrant communities that are environmentally responsible and people-friendly while also providing for long-term agricultural use.”

A Continuing Commitment

Ranch managers and employees all know Deseret Cattle and Citrus has a bright future as a working ranch. Since their livelihoods depend on the ongoing health of the natural systems they manage, their dedication to caring for the land is ongoing. When you plant, nurture and harvest as a way of life, you know how essential it is to use resources wisely day in and day out.

Erik Jacobsen speaks for everyone at the ranch when he says, “Generally, when people come out here, they’re awed by the beauty of the ranch, by the wildlife that they see, by the vast landscapes. They’re surprised that we’re in the cattle business in Florida. As we’ve formulated plans for the ranch, we’ve tried to stay focused on our environmental stewardship.”

Visitors can tour Deseret Ranch Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tours need to be scheduled in advance, so visitors should call or email ahead of their arrival. 

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