Ranches are vanishing quickly in central Fla.

Between 1964 and 1997, state lost nearly 5 million acres of agricultural land

July 14, 2002|By Christine Shenot | Christine Shenot,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ORLANDO, Fla. - The hired hands are milling around the barn in the gray light of dawn, getting ready for another day in the saddle, when Jennings Overstreet pulls up.

In this rustic corner of Osceola County, Fla., miles from the rush-hour masses swarming to the north, morning is unfolding to an almost-forgotten rhythm amid the smells of sweet hay, leather and damp earth.

A dog barks at the stir of activity; the horses snort and shuffle impatiently. Down on Lake Tohopekaliga, in front of the house Overstreet's father built in 1935 for $800, a flock of sandhill cranes feeds noisily. The exuberant trumpeting all but drowns out the dripping of last night's rain from the live-oak canopy overhead.

Overstreet joins the other men to hurry the horses onto a trailer that will carry them south to Rough Island. He had hoped to round up all the cows there on this recent day, but rain set them back.

The 67-year-old cattleman will be on his feet - or in the saddle - until well after dark, heading home, bone-weary, about 9 p.m. Few men like Overstreet still roam the pastures of Central Florida, and the fourth-generation rancher knows he's playing out the last chapters of 125 years of family history in Osceola County.

But so many things have changed. Florida lost nearly 5 million acres of agricultural land to development - about 14 percent of the state - between 1964 and 1997, when Orlando grew from cow town to theme-park metropolis. Another 1.3 million acres will be houses, office parks and strip centers by 2010.

Every year, the city creeps a little closer to Overstreet's faraway corner of Osceola. With metro Orlando gaining 115 residents a day, the suburbs are bulging onto vast stretches of open range that cattlemen have used for centuries.

And developers keep looking farther out, dangling multimillion-dollar offers in front of ranchers weary of mounting regulation, rising costs and the wild swings in beef prices.

Two years ago, Overstreet sold out.

Edgewater Ranch, where he grew up, was the last of his land in Osceola. The buyer lets him keep running cattle there - for now. The new owner, a major developer called Avatar, paid $8 million for 1,100 acres - three times what Overstreet could have gotten in the 1980s.

As the caravan of trucks bounces along the sandy road out of Edgewater Ranch, Overstreet scans a horizon of pasture broken by stands of pine, oak and bald cypress. It once was rough woods and native grasses - back before picky consumers grew accustomed to the tender beef that comes from grazing on cultivated pasture.

`This county is ruined'

In the land-rich, cash-poor life of a cattleman, it's what folks do now and then to keep going.

"It like to broke my heart to sell this property," Overstreet said. "This county is ruined.

"And we haven't seen the worst of it."

The Edgewater Ranch sale was just one in a long history of transactions propelling Florida from mosquito-ridden wilderness to tourist mecca and haven for newcomers. In an economy that depends so heavily on vacationers and home-building, there's little room left for agriculture.

In Orlando, the transformation has been most visible in citrus.

During the past 15 years, large swaths of fragrant green groves gave way to carbon-copy subdivisions and generic mini-marts, scattered across the region in checkerboard fashion.

"We're in a perilous situation," said Charles Bronson, the state's agriculture commissioner, who belongs to an old Florida ranch family. "With each generation, you have to sell land to stay in business."

In the northern reaches of Osceola County - the state's largest beef-cattle producer and a place where kids get a school holiday for the annual rodeo - the change has been striking. From 1987 to 1992, 60,000 acres of pasture vanished. In the five years ending in 1997, the loss accelerated to 100,000 acres. And experts expect more of the same when new numbers come out next year.

The boom in tourism combined with home buyers' love of country living made Osceola the fastest-growing central Florida county in the past decade. By 2010, Osceola is expected to have 53,000 more people, a 30 percent increase. Employment could climb 37 percent, with 20,100 more jobs.

The race is on to cash in on the growth.

Among the largest ranch transactions in recent years, the Partin family sold 1,100 acres to the Seminole tribe in 2001. In 1998, developers bought the 10,000-acre Triple E Ranch, where a city-size golf-course development called Harmony is rising 10 miles east of St. Cloud.

As other Osceola ranches disappeared, the sale of Edgewater became a question of when, not if, for Overstreet. New neighborhoods and construction sites with "coming soon" signs were closing in on the picturesque ranch halfway between Kissimmee and the sprawling community of Poinciana, where Avatar is in the midst of a building frenzy that drew 10,000 new residents in the 1990s.

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