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Ranching has deep roots in Brad Phares’ life. As a co-owner of Lazy JP Ranch with his mother and brothers, he can trace his ranching heritage back eight generations, seven of which have been in Florida. His great-grandfather and grandfather helped found the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, and his grandfather was also the only non-veterinarian to serve as the president of the U.S. Animal Health Association. Family legacy aside, Phares also has an interest in preserving the history of ranching in Florida, which stems all the way back to 1521 when cattle arrived with Ponce de Leon, to help keep the tradition alive for generations to come.
That passion for preserving history and stewardship of the land brought Phares’ latest venture to life: the Between the Beaches Podcast, which draws its name from the Florida landscape.
“We're talking about uncovering all of the Florida ranch lands in our rural heartland here in the center of Florida, which is everything that lies between the beaches on either coast.” Phares says.
As a painter and poet, Phares is familiar with sharing his work to educate and inspire, but as he thought about the critical need to educate the public about ranching and dispel misunderstanding about how ranching impacts conservation efforts and the environment, he decided to try a podcast format to reach a wider audience, as podcast’s popularity have skyrocketed in the last few years.
It may surprise non-Floridians to learn that on average about 1,000 people move into the state each day, putting huge pressure for more commercial development of the state and straining its water sources
“To sum it up in one word: critical. It’s of critical importance for us right now [to educate the public] because of the development pressure we're all facing. It's 1,000 people a day moving into Florida, give or take. That equates to more impervious surface, whether it be asphalt roads or concrete house pads and driveways and sidewalks,” he says. “When there’s more impervious surface, then you’ve got less natural landscape out there to store and filter water before it reaches all the different ditches and conveyances and our aquifer. Ranches are the one thing out there that is still able to offer that.”
As a land use, ranching is second only to pristine undisturbed land, he notes. It supports biodiversity and ecosystem functions, providing healthy watersheds and wildlife habitat. If you don’t have the ranches, the next thing you’ll have is rooftops. But, as those in the industry know, the public just doesn’t understand.
“Ranches been getting beat up a little bit because people don't understand, and they have misconceptions about what we're doing. For instance, they typically think that we're broadcasting fertilizer on every acre of our land, every year. That couldn't be further from the truth. We've been really trying to spread the message that we go out and pull soil samples and have lab tests done to determine what the soil needs. We do that before we even formulate what we're going to put on the land, and it's all science based. And quite honestly, we don't put it out on every acre. Most of us are probably only putting it on a hay field,” Phares says.
The other pressure ranchers in Florida face is from real estate developers.
“We’re constantly bombarded by developers offering to buy your land and wanting to build on it. As families through the years have to deal with the death tax and all these other things that put pressure on them, and then you get development pressure, a lot of them get the squeeze to sell. So, we've been trying to come up with different ways to relieve some of that pressure that all those ranchers are facing,” Phares says.
“We face a lot of artificially inflated land values here because it's no longer about agriculture, it's about development potential. A young person couldn't go out today and buy land and turn around and try to raise cattle on it. You'd never make enough, raising cattle. Even if you diversified and did some other ag practices you would never make enough to make the land payment because the values are so high,” he continues.
Phares serves on an advisory board for the Florida Conservation Group, which is a collaborative effort between ranchers and researchers who use science-based data to demonstrate the ecological importance of Florida’s ranch lands, working with the landowners themselves but also with legislators and administrative agencies.
One of the things they advocate for is conservation easements for ranch lands or designating them as wildlife corridors or any other conservation-related activity to raise funding to protect the working landscape. In the easement scenario, the rancher is able to sell off the development rights to the land but retains the land and is able to continue operating agricultural activity on it.
“The great thing about [easements] is they help offset that pressure of the artificially inflated land values due to the development. So you're able to sell off the development rights, keep ranching, and it protects that land at a fraction of the cost. And it also keeps it on the tax rolls,” Phares says.
And he practices what he preaches. At Lazy JP a variety of conservation practices have been put into place, from small: soon-to-be installed bat houses for the Florida Bonneted Bat, an endangered species native to Florida, and prescribed burning for grazing management, to large: best management practices to meet state water quality standards, completing a conservation plan with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and using windmills to catch wind power for water troughs. They’ve also tried integrated pest management, using beetles from a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Services project to control an invasive weed called the tropical soda apple.
The most significant capital investment they’ve made is the engineering design and installation of water control structures to hold more water onsite and prevent excess runoff. While some of the water control structures and engineering to be able to store more water on site might not be reachable for someone just beginning to implement more sustainable practices, there are resources that can make some of the changes easier, Phares says.
“It’s actually easier than ever to explore it, because of today's technology and the resources that are available online. There's plenty of avenues where you can do your own homework, or you can find someone to go talk to. The ones that have been key for us have the NRCS and Farm Service Agency. Your state universities are a great resource, particularly the land grant universities, as well,” he says. “If you check with some of these different government agencies, a lot of them offer cost share programs that will help you out and lessen the burden. It can seem daunting at first, but once you start exploring what's out there there's a lot of different cost sharing grant programs that can help you out with some of these projects.”
Between the Beaches can be found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pandora and anywhere else you listen to podcasts, as well as on Phares’ website. New episodes are available on Wednesdays.