Florida is one of the country’s largest producers of cattle, and the growing industry is putting a strain on the environment.
In September, two environmental agencies filed a notice of appeal to the 5th District Court of Appeals in Daytona Beach, opposing a consumptive use permit (CUP) the St. John’s River Water Management District issued to Sleepy Creek Lands.
Florida Defenders of the Environment and the St. Johns Riverkeeper oppose the CUP because it is intended to provide a year-round supply of grass for about 6,000 cattle. The permit is needed to water the grass for cattle to feed on.
Unlike other cattle operations in Florida that ship their cattle to the Midwest for fattening and slaughter, cattle in Sleepy Creek Lands are kept on the grounds until slaughter.
This model is known as forward vertical integration.
Derek Farnsworth, assistant professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Florida, wrote in an email that Frank Stronach’s operation, Sleepy Creek Lands, is an example of forward vertical integration, because he does not ship the cattle off to be fattened and slaughtered.
Farnsworth said a traditional farm has to purchase a wide array of inputs to produce its outputs, which are then sold to intermediaries before reaching store shelves.
“A vertically integrated farm has expanded its business to capture more of this supply chain,” he said. “Forward vertical integration, which is more common in farming, is when a farm has more control over the distribution of its production.
As Floridians produce and consume more beef, there will be a growing incentive to vertically integrate, Farnsworth explained.
“It [vertical integration] is often done to reduce production risk or capitalize on economies of scale,” Farnsworth said. “It can also improve the consistency and quality of agricultural products by standardizing production processes.”
Whether farmers decide to vertically integrate varies based on each individual management plan. This includes the labor they have available, the way they manage their risk, the land they have and the infrastructure around them.
“From a historical perspective, as agriculture’s share of the economy has shrunk over the years and the industry has become more competitive, we have seen a distinct trend toward larger and fewer farms,” Farnsworth said.
Dusty Holley, the field services director for the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, said Sleepy Creek Lands is focused on the niche market of organic grass-fed beef.
“He’s looking at a particular set of consumers with a particular product, and he’s going about raising something for them,” Holley said. “But it’s not the way the traditional cattle industry is going.”
Holley said there are other ranchers like Stronach looking to fill a need they see for these niche markets.
Tim Eland, the owner of Eland’s Eden, is a small-ranch owner who does the entire process in his farm. He owns 14 acres and leases land to accommodate the size of the herd each year.
“We try and keep our approach simple, and we take into account the animal’s quality of life,” Eland said. “We provide them with a good, safe environment. They’re not harassed, they’re not stressed by the shipping, and we do it on a smaller scale.”
Eland said this makes it a more humane process, as opposed to sending the cattle to a commercial feedlot.
“It’s the all-natural way, it’s the way the animals are designed to eat grass, to graze,” Eland said. “Their metabolism is made to process grass, not grains and modified foods.”
Robert Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, said the Department of Agriculture in Florida is responsible for the agricultural community and how people comply with environmental laws.
“There is a great reluctance in the state of Florida at the time to enforce laws related to surface water and groundwater,” Knight said.
“We have laws that are not being enforced, we have laws that are being avoided — in some cases legally because of changes in legislation that make it easier to get permits and make it more difficult to enforce the other laws that we have.”