For Hernando, economic future may be back on the farm

Thinking about William La Rosa's grass-fed cattle operation near Ridge Manor, I got what I thought was a brilliant vision for our economic future.

West-side residents may not realize this, but Hernando County has more than 70,000 acres of farmland — rolling, fertile and formerly among the most productive in the state. It supported citrus groves, thriving ranches and fields of squash, melons and beans.

And too much of it is now, in my opinion, sadly under-used, given over to pine plantations and half-hearted cattle operations.

Why? Well, at least partly because for too long too many farmers viewed their property merely as subdivisions waiting to happen.

And who could blame them? Three years ago, developers were willing to pay $35,000 an acre for pasture in some parts of the county, dwarfing potential farm income and killing the incentive to explore markets, invest in equipment or spend long hours planting new crops.

Now, however, these multimillion-dollar payoffs seem like pipe dreams — or should.

Not that Northerners will never resume their migration to Florida. It's just that we already have so much land designated for residential use — room for an added 98,000 lots — that we shouldn't need to convert more agricultural property to housing for another generation or two.

So this is where my vision comes in: Let's start looking at this land the way our predecessors did, and the way we currently view the Airport Industrial Park, as a resource that could create jobs and investments, diversify our economy and attract more innovators like La Rosa.

It's a journalistic crime that we have never written in depth about La Rosa, as I plan to do in the future. For now, let me tell you that he started raising organic cattle on his ranch off Croom-Rital Road 35 years ago, anticipating by decades the current market for naturally raised beef.

A retired urologist, the rising incidence of bladder cancer left him suspicious of our food supply and determined to avoid the use of herbicides and chemical fertilizer.

His cattle are raised and finished on perennial peanuts, a pasture cover that restores nitrogen to the soil. It also creates a leaner beef that critics increasingly prefer over cuts from the standard, flabby American steer that spends its last weeks being force-fed corn and antibiotics.

Not only are La Rosa's cows easier on the land; they draw a premium price of $3.75 per pound for skinned and gutted carcasses.

Why not attract and encourage more farmers like La Rosa — not just ranchers, but growers of vegetables, berries and citrus? Why not create incentives, promote our agricultural assets and rebuild a healthy (in every sense of the word) farm economy?

Then I called Steve Melton, which is when my vision bumped into reality.

Melton, a member of one of the county's most successful agricultural families, reminded me why so many native farmers regard themselves as being born into a doomed industry: foreign competition, variations in markets (including plunging demand for his family's main product, bahiagrass seed) and cyclical diseases, such as tristeza, a citrus virus that is forcing his family to bulldoze a grove of navels in Spring Lake.

Estate taxes, even with declining property values and the higher ceilings created by the Bush Administration, make it nearly impossible for farmers to pass on large holdings, he said. Prospects for new farmers are even darker. The cost of land and equipment are prohibitive except for those with an independent source of income and/or a great commitment to agriculture.

But guess what? People like that aren't as rare in Hernando as you might think. Which turned out to be another deficiency with my so-called vision. To some extent, it's already being realized.

As my colleague Beth Gray reports in detail elsewhere in today's section, farm production in Hernando grew steadily between 2002 and 2007, with annual agricultural income climbing from $21.7 million to $35.7 million and the number of farms rising from 617 to 768.

Several of these operations are devoted to blueberries, a recent but established success; others are breaking into markets that are even newer, at least for Hernando growers — thornless blackberries, muscadine grapes and pecans.

Though she doesn't raise any of these crops, Joann Beasley's path into agriculture is in many ways representative of our new farmers. Her husband works for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, and Beasley (like La Rosa for that matter) acknowledges her family couldn't make it on just her farm income.

Income is generated from staples such as sweet onions, squash, peppers and black-eyed peas. She works relentlessly long days, weeding, planting and turning soil.

So, in some ways, she's a throwback.

But consider this, too. She uses a minimum of chemicals, farms out of passion rather than necessity, and, over the past decade, has built a steady and still-growing business.

So, just maybe, she's showing us the future.

For Hernando, economic future may be back on the farm 02/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 21, 2009 12:14pm]

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