The Florida cowboy is a dying breed, but we need them to survive to keep Florida healthy.
Driving the news: Environmentalists want to help cattle ranchers preserve their swaths of land and be a line of defense against sprawling development, protecting watersheds and wildlife’s habitat and migrations.
Journalist Craig Pittman, in a new piece for Flamingo, documents the transformation of the Florida cowboy, an occupation that dates back 500 years.
Flashback: Spaniard Juan Ponce de Leon brought cattle when he landed at Charlotte Harbor in 1521, his second trip to La Florida. He came under attack, but four heifers and a bull fled into the scrub, introducing cows to America.
Today, Florida ranchers count 929,000 head of beef cows and 111,000 dairy cows. Including calves, that’s more than 1.6 million cows grazing in Florida pastures on more than 5 million acres.
The Florida Department of Agriculture values Florida’s beef cattle herd at more than a billion dollars.
Yes, but: Those 5 million acres of ranches — covered by wetlands and forests and prairies that are home to threatened animals — are increasingly coveted by developers as more people move here.
The higher the value of the land, the harder it is to hang on to a difficult and risky line of work.
Some 175,000 acres of agricultural and native land are lost each year to development, which some have predicted will cover more than a third of the state by 2050.
So environmentalists are trying to find ways to funnel government money to ranchers to help them continue to make a living off a 500-year tradition.
The big picture: Last month, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet approved spending $50 million on land preservation deals for seven parcels covering almost 20,000 acres — including Corrigan Ranch and Cow Creek Ranch in South Florida.
The environmental goal: Preserve links through the Florida Wildlife Corridor, the green veins that run the length of the state and serve as migration routes for the Florida Panther and other animals.
What they’re saying: “We’ve got to keep these ranchlands intact somehow,” Julie Morris, with the National Wildlife Refuge Foundation, told Pittman. “They’re keeping Florida green.”