The role of ranchers as important stewards of the environment has never been more critical than it is today. That’s why Audubon Florida created its Sustainable Rancher Award last year.
This year’s winner is Ft. Pierce-based Adams Ranch, which has about 8,000 adult cows on 50,000 acres of land in St. Lucie, Okeechobee, Osceola and Madison counties.
Founded in 1937 and now managed by a fourth generation of family members, Adams Ranch has maintained outstanding wildlife habitats and managed wetlands responsibly for decades. Its environmental leadership has also earned it the Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award from Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the Landowner of the Year Award from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Audubon Florida recognized Adams Ranch for two key reasons, said director of advocacy Charles Lee.
“First, their entire ranch philosophy is to preserve as much natural habitat on their ranches as they can,” Lee said. “If you drive through either their Ft. Pierce ranch or the one on Lake Marion in Osceola County, what you will see is a conscious effort to leave the wetlands intact and in some cases to even encourage the wetlands to come back where they had been previously challenged.”
One example of how they do that, Lee said, is by keeping wetlands and hammocks intact rather than turning them into improved pastures.
The other primary factor that helped earn Adams Ranch the award was its long-standing commitment to conservation easements. “All of the family members, including the ones now operating the ranch, have been strong advocates for the advancement of the conservation easement program,” Lee said. “They have offered tens of thousands of acres of their land up for conservation easements.”
In addition to setting an example to other ranchers when it comes to environment responsibility, Lee said, Adams Ranch has also demonstrated that conservation easements can become a second source of income.
Easements are based on acreage, and in Florida, where they can be sold on all or part of a ranch’s land, they are bought by the Rural and Family Lands Program, created in 2001 operated by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“That’s a program that Audubon Florida and ranchers like Adams Ranch want to see expanded,” Lee said.
Bud Adams Sr., 90, whose father started Adams Ranch, still comes to work every day. He said he is honored Adams Ranch won the award.
“I made the commitment a long time ago to take care of the land, because it was my land and the home of my kids, grandkids and great grandkids,” Adams said. “As ranchers, we have a common interest with the state and the public in preserving our grazing land, our water and our wildlife.”
Although Adams Ranch has been an exemplary example of the use of conservation easements as a tool for protecting the environment, Adams said he “does not advise others on what they should do with conservation easements. But in our family, the easements have a place in the preservation of the ranch over generations.”
Adams and his sons Mike, Lee and Rob, have managed the ranch since 1948. Now a fourth generation of ranchers , Zach, John, Stewart and Lee Ann, have assumed management positions.
Generational continuity of ranch operations is now vitally important, Adams said, “because people are coming to Florida and forcing farmers and cattlemen off the land.”
Given 21st century challenges to the environment, Audubon Florida wants to send a message to ranchers with its Sustainable Rancher Award, Lee said.
“The message goes to ranchers,” he said. “But it also goes to the general public. And the message is that ranches are and can be a very important protector of the environment. So we need to do things to encourage the continuation of ranches in production.”
Some of the largest areas of good wildlife habitat in Florida are not in national parks, Lee said. “They’re not in areas that we have bought to conserve as part of our conservation land program through the government. They’re on ranches.”
And ranchers such as Adams Ranch set a powerful example for others, Lee said.
The Sustainable Rancher Award was presented to Bud Adams Sr. and his family at the July meeting of the Florida Cattleman’s Association meeting in Marco Island.
The inaugural winner of the award last year was Sebring-based Rafter T Ranch operator Jimmy Wahl. Rafter T Ranch has been a pioneer in dispersed water management.