Florida Trend, November, 2022
Interview by Art Levy
Rancher, Myakka City
I’m 67 years old, and at age 7, I wanted to be what I am now. I always just wanted to be on a horse.
My dad was my hero. Dad was smart. He was entrepreneurial. He was a cattleman. He was a woodsman. He was the Manatee County property appraiser from the time I was about 9. He could go to Tallahassee and speak in front of a committee or speak to the governor, but he could also come back home to the woods and sit around a campfire and talk with the cowboys — because that’s basically what he was.
At points of my life, the environmental community was over here and the agricultural community was over there — separated. It wasn’t until the last 10 or 15 years that we started coming together, and we’re getting closer still. We can talk about wildlife corridors, endangered species habitat and using wetlands to filter water. We’re coming together, but it took years, and it took open-mindedness on both sides.
Dad died when I was 17. It was an accidental gunshot. We had a hunting lease on about 5,000 acres in Sarasota County and a gun went off as he was loading it.
By then, we had a lot of cattle leases and owned some land, but we were not big landowners. Of course, I had to take over. It was tough because most people don’t have respect for a 17-year-old running a big cattle operation. We had some times when people took advantage of the situation and took some leases away from us, but I was blessed to have some really good mentors along the way. If it hadn’t been for people helping me after my dad died, I would not be able to do what I do today.
Never forget that every road and every house in Florida used to be on a cattle ranch. In 1521, the first cattle were brought here. We didn’t have a fence law until the 1930s, so for like 400 years cattle ranged from the Keys up through the state.
I love to eat, but it doesn’t have to be steak. And when I do, it’s not a big steak. I like Thai food, red curry, green curry. I like mixing things up.
My mom is definitely one of the finest women I know. She has never said a bad word about anyone. She’s very proud of her FSU Seminoles. You do not want to be in the house with a 93-year-old woman whenever FSU is playing football on TV. She is crazy! All of her dogs have been named after FSU quarterbacks.
From a very young age, what I wanted for my birthday meal is garbanzo bean soup and a Cuban at the Columbia restaurant in Ybor City. I still get half a Cuban and garbanzo bean soup on my birthday, although I may go to the Columbia on St. Armands Circle in Sarasota.
What I see in politics right now is not what I learned in the Boy Scouts. It’s not what I learned from my father about working together. It’s not what I learned in seventh-grade civics class.
A cattleman needs to walk hand-in-hand with a scientist. I truly believe that. Anecdotally, I can tell stories. Scientifically, I don’t have the expertise to regurgitate data and research, but scientists do. So, when we come together, it’s so cool.
A ranch is as close to pristine wilderness as you’ll get. How do we compensate ranchers to maintain their land, stay in business and not sell to developers? We have to be able to tell the story of what dirt is worth — not from the standpoint of development rights — but what is the land worth to society, the 22 million people who live in Florida, who depend on that land to filter water, protect wetlands, store carbon, provide animal habitat. I’m excited by the research that will help us tell our story and quantify the ecosystem services we provide.
If I added up my broken bones, it would be close to 48, and each one came from a horse or a bull — falling off, getting kicked, getting knocked down.
This happened when I was about 30. We were driving like 500 head of cattle through a swamp. The water was deep. We did not have to swim our horses, but it was close. I had cow dogs with me — Catahoula Leopard Dogs — and they were swimming. Those were really good cow dogs, super protective and tough. I had one big leopard male dog named Bama with me and my horse is tippy-toeing through the water and all of sudden I heard this whoosh and an alligator grabs Bama by the hind leg. I got my rope out. I’m a pretty good roper, and I tried to time it, but the horse was moving, the dog is screaming, the gator is spinning and the dog is twisting around trying to bite the gator. Anyway, I missed. I was trying to rope anything, the alligator or the dog, and I tried again and barely missed again, but before I could pull my rope back, the dog came up out the water, looked me in the eyes, and he’s twirling around, and it was just a surreal moment. When you throw a rope, it doesn’t automatically sink in water, and the dog grabbed the rope in his mouth. The alligator was still on his leg, and the dog has the rope, and I pulled. When I pulled him out on dry land, the alligator was still hanging on the leg, but then it gave up. The dog’s leg was broken in two places. He hung on so tight, his gums and teeth had pulled loose. A guy gave me a raincoat, and I literally rolled the dog up in the coat, threw him on my saddle and it was about five miles to get back to a truck. I was hauling ass, like John Wayne coming through there with a rattlesnake-bit kid, because I really like my dogs. Bama got a pin in his leg, and I had to retire him. He hung around the house, and we got a lot of puppies out of him. I got famous for roping a dog out of an alligator’s mouth, but that was not the way it went. If it hadn’t been for the dog himself, he would’ve ended up alligator meat. That dog had heart.