Florida Cattle Ranchers Seek Locally Grown Label
Under the "Fresh From Florida" marketing campaign offered by the state’s agriculture officials to stores and consumers, people are encouraged to buy things that are grown and raised in the Sunshine State.
Alligator, tomatoes and, of course, oranges are on the list.
One thing isn’t highlighted: Florida beef. That’s because, unlike many other states, it’s nearly impossible to buy beef that’s been born, raised, slaughtered and processed in Florida - even though it was the first state to have large-scale cattle ranches.
There are nearly 1 million head of calves and cattle in Florida and the industry contributes about $2 billion to the state’s economy. Seven of the nation’s 25 largest cattle ranches are in Florida, according to the Florida Beef Council.
Most calves are born and raised here, but are finished and processed in states like Texas or Oklahoma, as there’s only one large slaughterhouse in Florida at the moment. Despite ranking 10th nationally in the number of cattle, Florida ships the majority of them - 700,000 feeder calves - to other states.
Cattle ranchers who realize there’s a demand for locally grown meat have asked agriculture officials for a designation. But before the likely tag can be applied, the state must first decide what, exactly, Florida beef is. Does the cow have to spend its entire life in Florida?
"Adding value to Florida beef through the Fresh From Florida brand is something we are excited about," said state agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam, a fifth-generation Floridian from a cattle-ranching family.
The ranchers’ quest to be included on the "Fresh From Florida" list is a testament to how popular local food has become - and because ranchers know it’s more sustainable and cheaper to keep an animal in state. Small farms, farmers markets and specialty food makers have emerged nationwide, and Florida is no different.
"It’s a niche that I believe people will respond to," said Don Quincey, a cattle rancher.
During the winter months, it’s easy to find plenty of local veggies and fruits here. But cattle ranchers say that it will take a little for them while to bring local farm-to-fork beef to the public.
"Let’s face it. If went into the supermarket and you saw ’Fresh from Mexico,’ ’Fresh from Arizona’ and ’Fresh from Florida,’ and you’re in Florida, which one would you buy?" said Florida rancher Tom Harper.
Over the centuries, cattle have thrived in Florida, freely grazing the swampland and eating wild oranges and scrub brush - a scenario that would make any locavore drool.
North America’s first cattle were brought in 1591 by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. At one point in the mid-17th century, more than 20,000 head of Spanish cattle were counted in a tax collectors’ census. These cattle tolerated the heat and were free-ranging; known as "Cracker Cattle," they are leaner than other breeds and also more ornery. But by the 1960s, the number of Cracker Cattle had greatly diminished because of rapid development.
Florida’s heat and humidity aren’t conducive for large-scale feedlots of less hardy cattle like those found in Midwestern states like Texas and Oklahoma. And with the rise of corn-finishing cattle on the feedlots, Florida was out of luck - while there’s lots of grass in Florida for weaned calves, the state doesn’t grow much corn.
"We didn’t have any options other than to send our cattle west to be fed," said Harper, who owns a purebred Angus breeding operation in north-central Florida, near Gainesville.
Quincey said he and a few other Florida ranchers have been able to work around the lack of options by building feedlots and facilities to hold a grain mix for the cattle. He has 1,000 head of cattle he hopes will soon get the "Fresh From Florida" label.
Many are born and raised on his Chiefland ranch near Gainesville, then weaned, preconditioned and moved onto a finishing feed operation on the same property.
"We save a lot of fuel by not having to truck this animal all over the United States," he said, adding he sells some cattle and ships others for finishing out of state.
Another hurdle for the state’s ranchers: There’s only one large slaughterhouse in Florida that can handle 150 head a week, and a handful of smaller ones, like Quincey’s.
Harper said a second slaughterhouse will open soon near Gainesville, which is the region where many of the state’s cattle are located. It will process about 300 head of cattle a week.
It would be cheaper for farmers if they could breed, raise, finish and slaughter their cows in Florida, he said.
"Just the cost to send them out west averages about $60-$65 a head," he said. "If we just eliminated extra freight, we would save money. Add that with the fact that people may prefer locally grown beef."