SEBRING - Unlike Florida's coasts, foreign investors don't own a large percentage of Highlands County. Of the 113,000 parcels of land, only 2,600 were owned by people with addresses outside the U.S., Property Appraiser Raymond McIntyre said.
Of those, 2,200 were just vacant residential lots.
But in the past two years, foreigners have made two significant investments: Cutrale Farms Inc. paid $32.3 million for the 7,673-acre Southern Farms in southwest Venus, and Heart Placid Inc. paid $4.183 million for 1,160 acres, also west of Venus, McIntyre said. Heart Placid has an address in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
Cutrale Inc. is a huge multinational corporation which sells to 80 foreign countries. One in every four glasses of orange juice in the world is dispensed by Jose Cutrale's company, Sucocitrico Cutrale of Brazil, according to a Dec. 13 2008 Herald-Tribune report.
Cutrale Farms plans to return Southern Farms, now planted in grass and other agriculture products, to citrus production. Citrus trees were removed during canker eradication efforts of the early 21st century.
Cutrale, which has an office on U.S. 27 in Sebring, also owns a juice plant in Polk County. The company also makes cattle feed from citrus pulp and citrus oil from the peel for the pharmaceutical industry. Citrus extracts can flavor or scent beverages, ice cream, medicine, soap, perfume, or cleaning products.
That Cutrale is a member of the local citrus growers association and is involved in the local industry is good, Royce said.
"It's always a good thing that a well-financed, successful company wants to have a presence in our industry and in our region," Royce said. "We live in a global market. Our citrus products are ending up in Japan, Korea, Europe. Most of our orange juice stays in North America, but the citrus products produced on the east coast of Florida, mainly grapefruit, goes to Japan and other overseas markets."
Highlands growers are learning from international competitors, and internationals are learning from us, Royce said.
"We have a significant interchange of ideas," said Royce, who recently visited Brazil. "Industry insiders are coming to Florida and vice versa."
Florida and Brazil citrus growers have modified their farm practices after learning from each other, he said.
"We are constantly sharing expertise."
Investors are just the latest way Highlands County is benefiting from international interaction. For decades, international laborers have picked fruit or supplied labor teams.
"We've had folks here from Europe and South America for a long time," said Ray Royce, executive director of Highlands County Citrus Growers Association.
After Majestic Cove was built on Lake Jackson, two condos were purchased by buyers with Venezuela addresses. Nine of the other 12 condo owners had Hispanic surnames and addresses in the Orlando or Miami areas.
When measuring foreign ownership, McIntyre could only account for property sold to owners with non-U.S. addresses, McIntyre said. "We have no way of knowing unless their (property tax bills) are mailed outside the country."
About 270 with foreign addresses owned single family homes, McIntyre said two years ago; 52 had mobile homes, 41 condos, 18 cooperatives and four apartments.
Only a few farms are owned by foreigners: 11 with grazing soil, one grove, and six non-agricultural acreages.