Why Are Florida Cattle Stocks in Historic Decline?

Florida cattle ranchers are in a ‘life or death’ battle to preserve the beef industry in our state, against a number of market and environmental factors that are threatening the 500+ year industry that supports thousands of jobs and contributes billions to the economy in Florida.

When you see the size and scale of some of the most prominent ranches in Florida, it is hard to imagine the economic challenges that contemporary beef ranchers face.  Nonetheless, every year we see more ranches in our state that have been multi-generational or passed from one family member to the next for over a hundred years, placed for sale as land prices and market factors edge out families that have produced quality beef.

What are the factors that are placing excessive pressure on our domestic beef producing ranchers in Florida? How can we help conserve and support our cattle ranchers, to maintain this very important industry, domestic food supply, and the jobs that the beef industry contributes to the Florida economy?  In this article we’ll take a look at the growing pressures, and what local residents in Florida can do to support our ranch families.

Increased Taxes and Land Values

If you want to know how big the problem is, or how quickly Florida is losing cattle ranchers and agricultural producers in our state, you can get a clear picture by doing an online search on Google for “Florida Ranches for Sale”.  The agricultural real estate website ‘Land Watch’ has over 946 current listings (at time of writing this article) for Florida ranches that are currently for sale.  The properties ranch from smaller single-family operations of less than 100 acres, to full-scale mega ranches with thousands of acres.

We know that the beef industry (particularly for grass-fed producers) can be highly lucrative, for experienced professional ranchers in Florida.  In fact, with trade restrictions that have been lifted from Asian Pacific countries like Japan, and lowered capacity to produce beef in some European countries, the demand for American beef has increased in the past three years. So why would ranchers who already have established operations, want to sell their property and ‘cash out’ of an industry that has been financially rewarding for them?

One of the factors is land value.  We know that Florida is a prime vacation destination, due to our favorable climate, beautiful natural resources (beaches, grass and wetlands), attractions and other draws for the travel and tourism industry.  However, Florida is also one of the most affordable tropical locations for retirement, with a variety of communities and options for American seniors, who are leaving cities to retire in the Sunshine State.

And that is good news for the Florida state economy in many ways.  Our housing marketing is booming, with new developments springing up virtually everywhere. This too creates an economic stimulus and new jobs for residents.  It invites in new population growth to Florida, which means new consumers and a broader tax base for the state.  These are all great economic factors that contribute to strong growth for Florida.

But with the increased demand for low density, or single-family residential units, comes an increased demand for land and space. A recent survey demonstrated that there is significant pressure on the Florida land inventory for subdivisions or housing developments with large lots.  As new residents move to Florida from high-density urban cities in other states, they want the full value of a large lot (where possible) for their retirement dwelling.

Housing is in higher demand in Florida than ever before, and it is rapidly becoming less affordable, thanks to the influx of new retirement-aged residents from other states across America. Land developers are eager to cash in on this increased demand, and the property values have been going up steadily in many high-growth residential areas.   The problem is that as demand increases and more farmland is converted to urban development projects, the property values go up, but so do land taxes. 

Property taxes increase when things like new roads and highways, electricity, cable and other utilities must be developed by builders.  Schools, medical facilities and other infrastructure must also be placed close to emerging new communities.  And these also place new fiscal demands on traditionally rural farming communities in Florida, which are forced to raise land taxes for residents in order to finance the infrastructure projects.

Maintaining a beef production business (particularly pastoral or grass-fed beef) is already an expensive endeavor for farmers.  But the demand for traditionally raised beef (due to the increased nutritional value) remains high domestically, and internationally.  But as taxes continue to go up, and developers continue to aggressively drive land values up disproportionately due to residential building demand, it becomes harder for Florida ranchers to remain in business.  

The costs of maintaining farmland are escalating quickly (and faster than beef prices are increasing to offset new expenses).  Tired of the struggle, many ranchers after fighting decades to remain in the beef production market, are finally selling out and succumbing to the economic pressures.  And who could blame them?  With increased competition from beef producers in Mexico and South America, profit margins are rapidly narrowing for many Florida beef ranchers.  And the land values and offers they receive from developers get more difficult to decline every year.

The Real Costs of Losing the Beef Production Industry in Florida

We are losing ground slowly, as our pasture lands are rapidly disappearing.  The cattle ranching industry in Florida is in a battle against tourism, and low-density residential building demands, increased taxes and production costs, and ever-increasing international competition and beef imports.

How economically viable and affordable would it be to live in Florida, if all our agricultural lands and producers disappeared? One of the most favorable aspects of our state, is that we have such a wide range of agricultural production, from beef to citrus and fruit, and vegetables. From that regard, Florida is capable of producing enough food to not only take care of our residents, but also surplus for exports.  That would all change if we lost our farmland and ranchers.  And with that loss in industry, millions of direct and indirect jobs, food assortment and affordable local fresh grocery meats and produce.

Environmentally, every thousand acres of agricultural land that is converted to low or high-density urban development, is contributing to an ecological unbalance that eventually would make our state a less healthy place to live.  As new housing developments replace pastureland, not only are we ‘squeezing out’ agricultural producers, but we are losing valuable tools that the environment needs to filter pollutants, water, and to sustain the biodiversity of wildlife that we enjoy in our beautiful state.

Farmlands and ranchers act as a buffer against urban sprawl, by sustaining green spaces that act as natural conservation areas and filters for the air we breathe, and the fresh water that we drink. And one of the concerns that urban planners have, is that the current high demand for retirement residential properties is temporary; thanks to the Baby Boomer population segment.  

The next generations behind the Baby Boomers is not as large.  Will these housing developments that replaced so much of our agricultural lands remain filled to capacity, after the Boomer segment passes on?  Or are we giving up our valuable agricultural land for subdivisions that will be vacant in the future?  Some economic analysts are already predicting the housing market crash and bubble that will be created by Baby Boomers within the next 15 years.

Before we ‘pave paradise and put up a parking lot’, it’s time for Florida residents to double down and support our agricultural producers, both in terms of the products we buy at the grocery store and legislatively, to protect more of our ‘endangered’ farmland.  Because like the song goes, once this farmland is gone, we can’t get it back. So, let’s make sure we don’t lose our most important land resource.