Matt Warren is in the business of keeping Florida ranchers out of hot water with the Environmental Protection Agency. You might even say he's handing out "Get Out of Jail Free" cards.
His title at the Hardee County Extension Office is environmental specialist, and his goal is to preserve water quality across the state. When ranchers enroll in Warren's program geared at cow/calf operations, they receive an official statement that presumes them to be in compliance of the best management practices designed to protect Florida's fragile water supply from agriculture-related pollution. That means if the EPA or the Florida Department of Agriculture decide to investigate water quality in a given area, Warren's participants will get a pass.
Ranches encompassing 145,964 acres of land have enrolled in the program in Highlands County, with 52,330 acres in Okeechobee County, 30,000 acres in Hardee County and 19,000 acres in DeSoto County.
Warren said most of the ranchers in Florida are already following the best management practices, which include keeping water troughs far from creeks and using solar pumps to bring fresh drinking water to cattle to keep them from congregating in (and consequently eliminating their waste into) water bodies.
"There are little things we get them to do," Warren said. "Most are pretty good stewards of the land anyway."
Warren's father managed a large ranch in Zolfo Springs for 30 years, so Warren grew up living the ranching lifestyle. As a boy, he showed livestock in Future Farmers of America and eventually became a livestock judge. He went to Fort Scott Community College in Kansas on a full paid scholarship for livestock judging. He followed that up with a degree in agri-business from Louisiana State, then landed a job with the University of Florida coaching the livestock judging team.
While most of his colleagues and clients in agriculture are UF graduates, Warren is glad he had the experience of going to school out of state. With the livestock judging program in Kansas, he traveled all over the United States judging at state fairs from San Francisco to Louisville. Here at home, he continues to judge at several county fairs, including the Strawberry Festival.
"I have a passion for seeing kids get involved" in agriculture, said Warren, who has a 6-year-old son, Lane, who will be starting 4-H this year. "One other thing that I like to see, whether it's right or wrong, is to see kids go out of state for school," Warren added. He said traveling across the country as a livestock judge taught him so much.
"You can never shut yourself off from learning," stated Warren, paraphrasing a statement he once heard and never forgot: "When you go to somebody's farm or operation, it may be the worst operation you've ever seen in your life, but there may be one thing that they do that you can bring to your operation and it will work."
Warren gets to put his learning and experience into practice on the hobby farm he and wife, Julie, own. They raise show calves and angus cattle. Warren is also an amateur beekeeper.
"I just find them fascinating," he said of his bees. "I like to raise them and maybe get some honey. Mainly, I just watch them."
Warren is also involved with the Cattlemen's Association and the Farm Bureau. He's pleased that the cattlemen have been supportive of the best management practices, which has helped in getting the ranching community to embrace them.
Warren said many ranchers also don't realize grant money is available to help with up to 50 percent of the cost of installing a solar water pump.