Sunrise over a Blackbeard's Ranch in Florida. (Photo by Jim Strickland)

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Parrish General Supply has been selling everything from vegetable seed to horse feed to customers in Manatee County, Florida, for decades. These days though, an increasing number of customers are shopping not for tools to maintain their farms, but for fittings and washers and clamps that suburban types need to fix plumbing and repair lawnmowers.

That’s because in recent years, Parrish – like much of Manatee County – has seen a residential building boom that’s turned citrus groves into neighborhoods, and cattle ranches into restaurants and strip malls. 

The transition has whittled away at the county’s bucolic landscape. It has also made some farmers very rich. 

“The farmers are not holding out, they are selling out,” said Parrish General Supply owner Jim Parks.

In fact, records from the Manatee County Department of Parks and Natural Resources, reveal that agricultural land use has dropped by a third in the last eight years – from approximately 324,750 acres in 2012 to 220,517 in 2020.

“That is a loss of 104,233 acres of agriculture land in Manatee County,” said Christa L. Kirby, assistant division manager for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Extension. 

The number of agricultural acres began to dwindle in Manatee County in 2005 when cattlemen and farmers sought to fend off bankruptcies and foreclosures by accepting developers’ offers, according to developer Leslie Wells.

“Land was selling for $36,000 to $40,000 per acre,” Wells said. “People who were selling large tracts of land were becoming millionaires.”

Now, people are relocating to Florida from Illinois, New York, Michigan, and New Jersey to the tune of 1,000 per day, Wells said, and to accommodate them, Manatee County developers are using up the last of the land they bought earlier in the decade to build between three and five houses on an acre.

Prices for agricultural land are escalating again, and another boom is underway.

“A lot of farmers are selling to developers because their children don’t want to farm,” said Ed Chaney, who as the owner of Sunny Tomatoes Produce gets some his store’s inventory from nearby farmers. “So they figure they can sell and pass the money on to their children.”

But not all owners of agricultural real estate are interested in letting go. Among them is Jim Strickland, who, between owning the Strickland Ranch and the Big Red Cattle Company and managing Blackbeard’s Ranch, oversees approximately 15,000 acres of agricultural land in Manatee County. 

Jim Strickland and David Patton at Blackbeard’s Ranch. (Photo courtesy of Jim Strickland)

According to Strickland, farmers and ranchers represent only 1,5% of Florida’s population of 22 million, so when it comes to affecting local or state government, they don’t have the loudest voice or strongest lobby.

“But we’re not anti-development, we’re just pro-agriculture,” he said. “We want to help people understand what agriculture brings to their lives.”

And that’s not just food, he said.

“For example, we are involved in conservation, we work for clean water and we keep invasive (plant) species down,” Strickland said. “We want communities to appreciate farmers.”

Todd Henson, Manatee County president of the Florida Cattleman’s Association, agrees. 

According to Henson, a complete shift from agricultural to residential land use affects communities in fundamental ways.

“There are fewer agricultural jobs because farmers who are being squeezed out cannot offer people employment,” Henson said. Urbanization is also raising the cost of living. “Teachers, nurses, fire and police (personnel) all used to be able to afford living here, and now they can’t – it all takes a toll on people”

That’s why educating communities to strike a balance between agricultural and residential land use is key, he said. 

Parrish Community High School agriscience teacher and FFA Advisor Susan Grainger has been teaching kids how to do it for the past 17 years. 

Every semester, Grainger helps 200 students understand how agriculture affects their lives, how best management practices can be used to produce agriculture products, and how technology and science affect modern agriculture, plant and animal care. 

She believes that the lessons are particularly important because 75% of the kids in her classes hail from families that have no farming history whatsoever.

“That’s why agriculture in the classroom has an even greater role on educating students and the community on how our farmers are getting food to the table safely and humanely,” Grainger said.

Over the long run though, Strickland believes that agriculturists themselves must do whatever they can to promote a healthy balance between agriculture and development.

“We have got to work together,” Strickland said. “We have to tell our own story.”

CORRECTION: We have corrected an earlier version of this article that misquoted Leslie Wells about the size of land sales. She said farmers were becoming millionaires, not billionaires. We’re sorry about the error.