(FDACS/TALLAHASSEE, FL) — Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Wilton Simpson announced the preservation of three family farms in the Florida Wildlife Corridor through the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. The K-Rocker Ranch, a 707-acre ranch in Polk County, the Los Niños Farm, a 998-acre timber and cattle operation in Putnam County, and the Kuder Ranch, a 525-acre cattle ranch in Polk County, are being preserved through rural land protection easements for $3,200,000, $1,798,000, and $3,900,000, respectively.
“With the preservation of these three ranches and their over 2,200 acres of productive agricultural land, in addition to the more than 36,000 acres we’ve permanently preserved in the last year, we are working to protect Florida’s valuable agricultural lands as efficiently and effectively as possible – and before it’s too late,” said Commissioner Wilton Simpson. “The Rural and Family Lands Protection Program is a win-win-win for the state as it not only protects productive agricultural land and our food security, but it does so in a fiscally responsible way by keeping the property on the local tax rolls and requiring property owners to maintain the land and its natural resources according to best management practices.”
The Rural and Family Lands Protection Program purchases the development rights to the 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.
K-Rocker Ranch II – Polk County
The 707-acre K-Rocker Ranch has been in business near Lake Wales since 1952 and the third generation of the Keen family now grows Bahia sod as its primary operation. The upland portion of the ranch comprises about 87% of the project, and the remaining wetland areas contain a mosaic of oak and cabbage hammocks along with intermittent wetland sloughs, scrub, and native hardwoods along Catfish Creek. This project fills a gap in the protection of the Lake Wales ecosystem, where it is surrounded by Lake Rosalie and Kissimmee River State Park, the Alan Broussard Catfish Creek State Preserve, the Bombing Range Ridge, and the United States Air Force Bombing Range.
Los Niños Farm – Putnam County
Lying just a half mile off the St. Johns River, Los Niños Farm consists of 998 acres of managed pine timberlands and was one of the first Florida properties to receive a designation under the American Tree Farm System. A small Angus cow-calf operation is also managed on the property, and the Smith family has farmed in Putnam County for nearly a century. Situated across the river from the historic farming town of Hastings, Los Niños Farm continues the rural agricultural traditions of the area and protects important wetlands bordering the river floodplain with intact basin swamps, baygall, and hydric hammocks.
Kuder Ranch – Polk County
The 525-acre Kuder Ranch is a cross-bred cattle operation located just southwest of the Green Swamp within the Lake Wales Ridge ecosystem. The improved pastures are interspersed with ponds, remnants of pine flatwoods, and wetlands that are a mix of baygall, basin swamp, and basin marsh with large cypress trees. In addition to the cattle operations, the Bryant family hosts hunts for wounded veterans on the property, as well as wildlife viewing trips. Wildlife on the project includes turkey, roseate spoonbill, sandhill cranes, alligators, bald eagle, swallowtail kites, osprey, bobcat, and fox. Rare and endangered species also occur on the property including indigo snakes and gopher tortoises.
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.