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County's farmers try to hang on

Published Oct. 16, 2005

Just as his father and grandfather and great-grandfather did, John Thomas rounds up cattle on the family farm. Unlike his predecessors, he also holds down a job off the farm. Like many farmers of his generation, Thomas has become a part-time farmer. He manages a wholesale plumbing supply store in Ocala, and the financial security that job offers protects his family against the vagaries of the farming business.

Thomas, 43, grew up working on the farm. His father sent him to the big city - Tampa - when he was 21, and he wound up a running a wholesale plumbing supply store in Sarasota. When his father died in 1976, he came back to the farm.

Thomas still spends most of his weekdays in Ocala, relying heavily on hired help to run the farm. But his heart is in the 1,100 acres near Sugarmill Woods not far from the Hernando County border. His family has grazed cattle and raised crops on the land since the late 1800s. He also plants about 40 acres of watermelons a year.

"I thought enough of this place that I felt like I needed to come back," he said. "If I had stayed there and not come back, I wouldn't have felt right."

Men like Thomas with family farms are practically the only ones who can keep ranching alive in Citrus County. Land has become so expensive that the market is effectively closed to newcomers except for the wealthy.

A generation or two ago, that wasn't so. Thomas' father bought the family farm in 1940. Then, you didn't even have to own land to be a rancher. Cattle could roam freely, and landowners and cities had to put up fences if they wanted to keep them out (Inverness did).

That all changed in 1949, when the state Legislature enacted the so-called fence laws. From then on, ranchers had to fence their cattle in, and owning land became important.

In the last two decades, land prices in Citrus County have soared, fueled by rapid population growth. Many farmers sold their land, opting to get out of a business so susceptible to disease, the weather, and restrictions on the use of pesticides and fertilizers.

Between 1982 and 1987, farm acreage in the county dropped from 93,183 to 74,264 acres, according to the state agriculture census.

Some has been swallowed up in state and federal efforts to preserve the environment: the Southwest Florida Water Management District has bought the Flying Eagle Ranch and is buying the Dee River Ranch, two huge tracts along the Withlacoochee River.

The number of citrus groves dropped from 57 covering 1,590 acres to 19 with 303 acres in those five years. Freezes in 1983 and 1985 persuaded several growers to give up on oranges.

But farming is far from dead in Citrus County. Over the same 1982 to 1987 period, the number of farms increased from 293 to 331. Smaller farms growing greenhouse tomatoes or ornamental plants for sale in nurseries are springing up, said county agricultural extension agent Andy Rose.

More cattle are apparently being raised on fewer acres. Between 1982 and 1987, the number of cows increased from 5,580 to 6,817.

Those figures don't sway old-time farmers who see themselves as a dying breed.

"Not too long ago, half of the subdivisions in the county were in cattle land," said Almyr Rooks, president of the county Cattlemen's Association, said.

Roy Dee, owner of Dee River Ranch, pulled up his stakes and went to Alabama, where land is cheaper and better. Citrus County has never been a major agricultural producer because of its sandy soil.

Selling out could be less attractive under proposed changes to the Citrus County comprehensive plan. One would restrict development in agricultural areas to one home per 40 acres.

That has some members of the farming community fuming. Rooks said the amount of money farmers can borrow for their businesses depends on the value of their land, which banks accept as collateral.

In spite of the difficulties, a handful of farmers are determined to press on. Glenn Van Ness has run an auto parts store in Hernando for 27 years, but he also keeps cattle and the 40 acres of orange grove his grandfather first planted in 1898.

Why bother?

"That's a good question," the 52-year old Van Ness replies. After pausing for a minute, he offers, "We just kind of like to keep it in the family. It's been there for so long."

Whether the next generation will do the same is up to his children, he says. Two of his sons are in college in Gainesville, but they come down on the weekends to help out on the farm.

Thomas says he intends to teach his two daughters, Martha, 9, and Sarah, 10, everything he knows about farming. Maybe, he hopes, they'll marry husbands who want to ranch.

"I think about it every day," he said. "I wonder what's going to happen to this when all is said and done."

5 YEARS OF CHANGE 1982 1987 Farm acreage 93,183 74,264 No. of farms 293 331 No. of cattle 5,580 6,817 Citrus groves 57 19 Citrus acreage 1,590 303