Commissioner Wilton Simpson Announces Preservation of Three Florida Family Farms Through the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program

Will Jordan General

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture
Wilton Simpson

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Today, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Wilton Simpson announced the preservation of three Florida family farms through the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. The Watson Farm, a 550-acre farm and dairy operation in Gilchrist County, the Kirkland Farm, a 245-acre timber farm in Baker County, and Hart Pasture, a 1,600-acre cattle ranch in Highlands County, are being preserved through rural land protection easements for $1,540,000, $1,008,000, and $4,800,000, respectively.

The Rural and Family Lands Protection Program purchases the development rights to agricultural properties through voluntary rural land easements, which prevent the future development of the land and allow agriculture operations to continue to contribute to Florida’s economy and the production of food, timber, and other resources vital to the prosperity of Florida.

“I’m excited to announce another achievement for our Rural and Family Lands Protection Program and the permanent preservation of more than 2,300 acres of productive family farms,” said Commissioner Wilton Simpson. “The Rural and Family Lands Protection Program not only strengthens our food security by protecting productive agricultural land, but it does so while keeping the property on the local tax rolls and requires every property owner to maintain the land and its natural resources according to best management practices.”

Watson Farm
The property in Gilchrist County has been family-owned and operated by the Watson family since the turn of the twentieth century and is now operated by the fourth generation of Watsons. Over the decades, the Watson Farm has engaged in a variety of farming activities, including vegetables, tobacco, watermelons, and maintained steady animal production. The current dairy was started in 1999, and the family’s beef cows were sold and replaced with dairy stock. Former row crop fields were planted to pasture grass to support the dairy operations.

The entire site is uplands, with two-thirds in improved pasture. Forest stands are scattered across the property, supporting a mixture of hardwoods and pines, along with two small areas of slash and loblolly pine plantations.

Kirkland FarmSince 1902, the Kirkland family has farmed near Macclenny in southeastern Baker County. In the mid-1970s, the Kirklands transitioned to timber management and converted a major portion of the 258-acre property to planted pines. Besides timber, the Kirklands also grow sugarcane and still make cane syrup on-site in the traditional manner, using a vertical roller mill powered by a mule, and a large syrup kettle permanently installed in a brick furnace that’s fired by lighter knots.

The loblolly and slash pine forests on the property are bisected by a 39-acre-long bottomland hardwood slough and native grasslands. The wetland contains a portion of the South Prong Tributary of the St. Mary’s River and consists of 1.5 miles of creek bottoms which remain undisturbed and are buffered from silvicultural practices.

Albritton’s Hart Pasture
The property is a cow-calf operation with seasonal hay and sod production. The ranch contains both natural upland and wetland areas as well as improved pastures. A segment of the Old Cracker Trail that was part of a Ft. Pierce to Ft. Myers cattle drive route is still present on Albritton’s Hart Pasture. The trail used to run to just east of Bradenton and was used for moving both horses and cows cross-state from the 1800s to the mid-20th century.

Little Charley Bowlegs Creek enters the property on the north, and there is a large marsh (286 acres) that holds open water for much of the summer. Water flows off the property and into Highlands Hammock State Park, helping rehydrate the agricultural operation as well as the hammocks.

Rural and Family Lands Protection Program
Established in 2001 with the passage of the Rural and Family Lands Protection Act, the program recognizes that working agricultural lands are essential to Florida’s economic future. Agricultural lands are being increasingly threatened by urban development. To counter this trend, the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program partners with farmers and ranchers to ensure sustainable production practices while protecting natural resources.

During the 2023 Legislative Session, HB 1279 was signed to support the department’s Rural and Family Lands Protection Program by no longer requiring the department to submit a purchase agreement to the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund for approval for projects with a purchase price of less than $5 million. In early January, Commissioner Simpson announced the first acquisition of a permanent rural land protection easement through the department’s sole authority.

Commissioner Simpson recently highlighted the historic interest in the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program and the results of the 2023 application cycle. Landowners from over 180 properties – representing over 200,000 acres – submitted new applications to be considered for funding. In December, the Governor and Cabinet also formally approved the program’s project acquisition list, which ranks over 250 eligible properties for acquisition, estimated at over $1 billion in value.

Commissioner Simpson has been involved in Florida’s land conservation policy issues long before becoming Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture. As Senate President, Commissioner Simpson championed the successful passage of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, which directed the state of Florida to better protect and connect Florida’s natural areas and wildlife habitats and to preserve working agricultural lands from future development. As Senate President, Commissioner Simpson also secured $300 million for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.

A story map of all completed Rural and Family Lands Protection Program projects can be viewed here:

For more information about Commissioner Simpson and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, visit