I was recently invited to a day-long event at the Lightsey Cattle Ranch in Lake Wales Florida. This 4000+ acre ranch is home to more than 10,000 head of cattle and owned by brothers Cary and Layne Lightsey. The event was to showcase 13 members who make up the new company known as FCR, or Florida Cattle Ranchers LLC. FCR is committed to marketing locally produced beef “from conception to plate” so consumers know where their beef is coming from and know the folks behind the ranching.
“The main reason we started this is because we’ve had people call and ask if they can buy one of our animals,” Lightsey said. “People today want to know where their food comes from.”
I pulled up to the ranch about a half hour before the sun came up. I introduced myself to Layne who was already out working in one of his barns. We made small talk for a few minutes before we loaded up into his Ford F-350 Dually and slowly made our way across the ranch. Numerous times did we stop to open a gate crossing from various types of vegetation depending on what section of the ranch we were on.
Layne wanted to get to edge of Lake Kissimmee so we could watch the sunrise from the shoreline of this giant lake that his ranch surrounds.
As we sat in the truck, not really allowed to get out due to the large herd of swamp cattle, or woods cattle as he called them, that sat keeping an eye on us, I sat listening to stories from this life-long cowboy of ranching on this property for multi-generations. I honestly could have sat in the truck listening for the rest of the day and would have been completely entertained, my only regret is not have a recorder because the stories were so good, loaded with so much detail, it would be impossible for me to re-tell them in his grandeur.
If you’ve ever read the book A Land Remembered (Highly, Highly Recommended!) it was like sitting there listening to the words from the author himself. Mr. Lightsey was telling us stories of riding out in search of woods cattle when they simply roamed the area openly. Pushing cattle for days to bring them to market. Things you don’t normally think about when you think of touristy, beachy Florida, not realizing that Florida was the first state in the Union to have cattle. It was Florida’s first industry and there are some 15,000 cattle ranches in the state of Florida. Most do not realize that 9 of the countries 25 largest cattle ranches are in the Sunshine State and of this industry, 500 MILLION dollars, yes that number is correct, was spent last year alone.
The rest of the day was spent meeting and talking with the Reputation Ranchers, those who have multi-generations working on their properties. One rancher we spoke with boasted that his father had worked with his grandfather on their ranch. He had worked with both his father and his grandfather and in the past few years he’s worked with his sons and his grandchildren in those same barns on the same property. These men are proud of what they do, they’re not afraid to put in hard work and they’re very proud to try and keep their hard earned money here in their own state and local communities.
Don Quincy of Quincy Cattle Company out of Chiefland, who is one of the partners in the FCR boasted that “It’s the first company in the state of Florida owned by ranchers and committed to delivering beef from calf to the supermarket.” The Florida Cattle Ranchers wants to grow their feed here in the state of Florida, they want to raise their cattle here; rather than ship it out of state to market where the cattle become stressed and lose precious weight, they’re in the process of working with investors to build and develop a Florida market that keeps everything here in our state.
The kick-off event also drew representatives of Florida’s environmental community, such as Charles Lee, a lobbyist for Audubon of Florida, who support the new business.
“Audubon has a strong interest in the health of the Florida cattle industry because our ranchers are our best stewards of the land,” Lee said. “Anything that supports the viability of the industry and keeps it able to resist selling land to developers is a good thing for the people of Florida. You have to have a viable cattle industry as the first line of defense against development.”
It was an eye opening experience and one I was very glad I attended. Surprisingly enough, it was also an eye opener as to how small this country or ours is. Throughout the day, I met numerous people I’ve met in the past, all in different places around Florida. Many knew us from the Tiki Bar and asked how Cedar Key was doing even though we were 3.5 hours south. I talked with another rancher who told me he was from Okeechobee. When I asked if he knew Reed Durrance, the rancher we met back in March of 2009 who opened his property to us and allowed us to experience his way of life for a few days, he laughed and said “Oh yeah, I know Reed, he’s a very good friend of mine!“
I’d like to thank the 13 ranchers who make up the FCR for starting a company I hope many people will support. It would be good to see every state have something similar to this in hopes the industries keep their money local and help support their own economies. You’d be amazed at how many efforts are made to keep things local and reuse products you’ve probably never thought of.
When talking with Layne, he explained that the local supermarkets like Wal-Mart and Publix bring any produce that has spoiled to their ranches. There they feed the produce through what would be compared to a monstrous food processor that chips everything up into what looks like a giant slurry. They spread the slurry out into drying beds before mixing it up with grain to be fed to the cattle.
When I asked what another pile of very odoriferous substance was, Layne explained that the local breweries bring their spent malts and grains to the local ranches after they’ve cooked all the alcohol out. This is also dried before being mixed up with feed to be fed to the cattle. It’s really recycling at it’s finest and something that’s being done that not too many of even know about.
The afternoon ended with a cattle drive showing up how they move the herds from one side of the property to the other the old fashioned way. Simply pushing them while the cowboys ride their horses and the dogs do their jobs. It was an amazing day and one I’ll never forget. Good people, amazing sights and to think it’s all right here in this amazing state that most only think of Mickey and a bikini on a beach. There is so much more to offer from this great state and it’s heritage. Be sure the next time you’re visiting your local butcher that you ask if you’re buying Florida Fresh Beef!