Florida's Adams Ranch aims to keep the family operation going for generations.
By: Michael Kruse, Tampa Bay Times
Bud Adams, slim and dressed in blue jeans and a blue button-down shirt and cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, drove his Ford Explorer around his ranch in western St. Lucie County, looking at his land and his cattle. His truck, with manure caked in the tires, jounced in the ruts of rough paths. He's been the president of the Florida Cattlemen's Association. He's been named landowner of the year by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conversation Commission. He's a member of the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame. Now he showed his guests his bounty, pointing to heifers and calves, herons and hawks, egrets and turkeys, baby gators and boxes of bees, centuries-old hammocks of cypress, pine and palm. He stopped the truck. A hot breeze blew through Spanish moss. He plucked a fat grapefruit and knifed off its top and sucked on a juicy wedge.
This land, unpolluted and pristine, was here before he was here. All he has done, he explained, is keep it intact.
"So far," he said.
What Adams wants, here near the end, coming up on 89 years old, is for the ranch land that bears his name, some 40,000 acres spread over four Florida counties, to remain the way it is — for his children, for their children, for the children's children.
Three-quarters of the people who voted in Florida on the first Tuesday of November want the same thing. The language on the ballot for the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative, Amendment 1, stated the aim: "to acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands." But the crux of the question: Did interested citizens of Florida want the state to spend billions of dollars of taxpayer money to buy environmentally important property and then just let it be? The answer was overwhelmingly yes.
On the St. Lucie portion of the ranch, Adams pulled up to the house he has lived in since 1949, open windows the only AC, for his regular noon lunch. He stiff-shuffled inside and to his chair at the head of the table, where he drank unsweetened tea and ate sliced avocado, black-eyed peas and spaghetti with sauce. He wears hearing aids. Often, he has to have skin cancer spots removed from his face, the result of a life spent on the back of a horse. A few years ago, he had a quadruple bypass, and now, again, he could feel his breath getting short.
He leaned to his left to feed his wife, the former Dorothy Snively, to whom he has been married for 65 years, the past 10 of which she has had Alzheimer's. She sat still in a wheelchair. He held a fork of noodles to her mouth. She looked at him, her eyes bright blue and unblinking, and took a bite.
"Good, good," Adams said.
An Adams Ranch composite cow out on pasture.
HIS GRANDFATHER was a Civil War orphan who never learned to write his name. His father was a state Supreme Court judge.
He was born Alto "Bud" Adams Jr. in the house of a doctor in Fort Pierce on April 4, 1926, Easter Sunday, toward what turned out to be the tail end of the first great Florida land boom.
The span of his life traces the modern history of the state.
The house in which he was a boy was two stories up a hill from the railroad tracks, with trains two or three times a day carrying to Miami people from up north. In the 1920s they brought people looking to make money; in the '30s they brought people trying to find work. During the Depression, hobos leapt from boxcars and scampered toward the Adams house and knocked on the door, asking for food. So many decades later, Adams recited a childhood saying: "Grits is good, grits is tough, thank the Lord we got grits enough."
Much of St. Lucie County, on the Atlantic coast, was still frontier. In Fort Pierce, people went to government buildings, dime stores and feed stores. Shoeless Seminoles came to town to sell huckleberries and hides. But to the west, across the peninsula, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, was inhospitable open range, unfenced cattle on unbroken pasture, a vast swath extending from the wild, impenetrable Everglades north to what Walt Disney would do to Orlando. Florida was the last of the states in the East to be settled, especially South Florida, because of Indians, animals and bugs, swamps and heat. Adams as a boy went out to the country to hunt fowl and deer.
In the wake of the Depression, lots of land was next to worthless, beset by back taxes. Alto Adams Sr. had in mind to buy a small plot, but a man who lived in Iowa wanted to unload all his Florida ranch land, all 40,000 acres, for $1.50 an acre, and it was fine if Adams' dad simply paid when he could. Sold. That was in 1937.
Ten years later, after Adams finished a two-year stateside stint in the Navy during World War II and then graduated from the University of Florida, his father made him his partner. Alto Adams' ranch became Alto Adams & Son.
In the '50s, Adams and his wife had their children, first Lee, then two daughters, twins who were born premature and didn't live past three weeks, then Mike, then Robbie.
Adams created cattle, too, astutely mating Hereford bulls, more attractive at market but bigger and hairier, and Brahman cows, leaner, rangier descendants from India and Spain, to make a new breed he called Brafords. They were particularly well-suited for the Florida climate. Adams began to believe the secret — if there was one — was to live in harmony with one's surroundings. Coexistence, not willful dominion, was the best way.
Meanwhile, freezes near Orlando pushed citrus growers south, toward the Adams Ranch, and the Coca-Cola company, purveyor of Minute Maid orange juice, came looking for land, intent on making ranchers offers they couldn't refuse. In the mid '50s, Adams remembers, the company offered him and his father $5,000 an acre for 5,000 acres, $25 million. They refused.
If citrus covered Florida first, houses covered Florida next, and in the '60s, Frank Mackle of the General Development Corporation bought 40,000 acres of his own. South of the Adams' land, he started Port St. Lucie. St. Lucie County, with a population of barely more than 7,000 when Adams was a toddler and only 11,000 when he was a teenager, kept getting bigger — more than 20,000 in 1950, almost 40,000 in 1960, more than 50,000 in 1970 — and Port St. Lucie kept getting closer.
And on Nov. 30, 1971, at a gathering marking Adams' mother's 70th birthday, his father spoke to the whole family, and to his son in particular.
"No one life stands alone, without attachments to others," Alto Adams Sr. said. "It is proper that you take justifiable pride in who you are. This heritage is yours, to have, to hold, and to build upon."
The population of St. Lucie County continued to surge, to almost 90,000 in 1980, more than 150,000 in 1990 — other ranchers sold their land to builders of houses — but Bud Adams never did.
In 1991 he received the Florida Cattlemen's Association Environmental Award, and a National Cattlemen's Foundation Environmental Stewardship Award.
"Plants in Florida flower and bear fruit, and grasses grow to cover the prairies," he wrote in his book A Florida Cattle Ranch in 1998. "Bees suck nectar from flowers and distribute the pollen that makes the fruit possible. Birds eat fruit, and cattle graze on the tender grass. Their hooves break up the soil to accept new seeds which are spread by the birds. The manure of all creatures nourishes the soil.
"No one has greater stake in preserving the land in its natural condition than those whose families have lived for generations with its endless change, its perpetual beauty, and its occasional cruelties. . Whoever owns and uses the land merely holds it in trust for future generations."
The Adams Ranch has been focused on conservation easements for the past 10 or so years. Conservation easements are legal agreements between a landowner and usually a government entity in which the owner gives up the development rights. Because the land can no longer be developed, its value goes down, which in turn reduces the estate tax, or death tax, that must be paid when the land is passed along to the owner's heirs. Adams thinks conservation easements are a good idea for him and his ranch. But funding comes and goes depending on the vicissitudes of the economy and the priorities of politicians. The family applied in 2006 for a then-5-year-old program called Florida Forever. In 2008, the family put 780 acres under easement. The leader of the Adams Ranch's latest easement efforts is LeeAnn Adams Simmons — Bud's granddaughter.
White-tail deer taking a rest beneath the trees of the Adams Ranch.
TALLAHASSEE. LAST MONTH.
"I don't want to talk if I don't have to," Simmons said at Florida's Capitol, outside the Cabinet Meeting Room. The Adams Ranch was on the day's agenda.
"I think it would be useful if you said something," said Charles Lee, the director of advocacy for Audubon Florida. "To put a face to the transaction."
Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet were set to consider a 1,536-acre easement, a mixture of pasture and wetlands in eastern Osceola County. The purchase price, 90 percent of the lowest appraisal, was a little more than $2.6 million. The state would pay roughly 75 percent of that, the National Resources Conservation Service the rest, at about $1,700 an acre. That's much less than the richest offer Adams ever got, from a developer — and said no to — which was in 2005: $15,000 an acre for all of his more than 20,000 acres in St. Lucie County.
"Should I talk?" Simmons asked John Browne, the land acquisition administrator of the Florida Forest Service, the coordinator of Florida's Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.
"Yes, you should," Browne said.
Inside the meeting room, Adam Putnam, the state commissioner of agriculture, found Simmons and her father, Lee, Bud Adams' oldest. He shook their hands. "Good to see you," he said. "How are y'all doing?"
Simmons, 32, a Florida State graduate, is a company director in charge of the ranch's real estate interests. She can wear jeans and boots and go on gator hunts. She can wear high heels and hoop earrings and talk to Tallahassee shot-callers.
"That LeeAnn," Adams had said back at the ranch, "she can work with anybody, cowboys or senators. She's talked like an adult since she was 3 years old."
"Eventually it would be nice to put the whole ranch under easement," Simmons had said in the Capitol lobby. "We never thought it would take this long. We're not in a hurry. But my grandfather would tell you differently. He's 88. He's in a hurry."
There was an invocation from a local pastor, the Pledge of Allegiance from a class of area third-graders and a presentation concerning Toys for Tots. Awards were given to some firefighters, a state trooper. Pictures were posed, snapped. Simmons sat, legs crossed, waiting, her right foot bouncing nervously. Finally the Adams Ranch was up.
She stood behind a lectern. She brushed her hair behind her right ear. She looked at the governor and his Cabinet.
"On behalf of Adams Ranch, I would like to thank the governor and Cabinet for considering this conservation easement purchase today.
"Conserving this 1,500 acres is a step towards conserving a complete ecosystem that is home to numerous endangered and protected wildlife species. Cattle and wildlife have used this land together for over 400 years. They are mutually dependent on each other. Cattle keep the brush down and improve habitat for nesting birds such as turkey and quail."
At the ranch, in the office, Adams watched his granddaughter on a video feed on a computer.
In Tallahassee, in the meeting room, Scott rocked in his chair. Attorney General Pam Bondi rested her face in the palm of a hand. Putnam leaned back and put his pen to his mouth.
"Also being protected," Simmons continued, "is a 75-year-old cattle ranch that is the 12th-largest cow-calf ranch in the country. The second, third and fourth generations are now running the family business together.
"The Rural and Family Lands Protection Program is a tool that can be used to ensure that a ranch operation can stay in agriculture production in perpetuity. This will protect our nation's food supply, grasslands and watersheds while staying on the local tax rolls and providing jobs. This program will help prevent large old Florida ranches from being fragmented, preserving the 500-year-old ranching heritage in Florida. It is a win for everyone. It is a win for the state because there will not be any management costs while receiving the benefits of large landscape conservation. It is a win for the local governments that will continue receiving taxes without having to provide extra services. It is a win for the rancher who can continue to work the land and be able to pass the land down to the next generation. And it is a win for the wildlife that will continue to have a home.
"We still have more to get done until this project is completed, but we will continue to move forward with this program in the future as more funding becomes available.
"Thank you," Simmons said, "and I'm here to answer any questions."
Bondi made a motion to pass. Putnam seconded.
"The motion carries," the governor said.
In the lobby, Charles Lee, of Audubon Florida, said, "The word perpetuity appears in these easements, and perpetuity is a long, long time."
About Bud Adams, Putnam said, "He's a giant in Florida agriculture."
About Adams Ranch and the easement, Putnam said, "It's the next incremental step in protecting the landscape that the Adams family has protected for generations."
An Adams Ranch composite heifer hanging out with cattle egrets.
THE NEXT MORNING at the ranch, past the blue and white lights of Orlando and the big-box stores on the banks of Interstate 95, two bulbs burned through the dark in the horse barn.
Cowboy Blaine Matthews fed the quarter horses buckets of pellets. "Plenty of nutrition, plenty of fat," he said. "Plenty of energy. We ride these suckers every day."
"Morning," he said to three other cowboys, including Stewart Adams, 29, son of Robbie, grandson of Bud, father to two 3-year-old girls and a boy who's not quite 1, Bud's first great-grandchildren.
Stewart, dressed in boots and spurs and blue jeans and a tan Carhartt coat, checked the temperature on his iPhone, a digital glow in the barn. Florida cold: 43 degrees.
"Bill get passed?" he asked a guest, referring to the easement.
Yes, he was told.
He used Google Earth on his phone to pull up an image of the acreage, a slice of the Adams' Osceola ranch, about an hour north. "Pretty in there," he said. "I'm just glad my kids can see it."
The cowboys brushed and saddled their horses. This morning's task was to corral in a nearby pasture 92 bulls, not yet visible but audible, a mixture of screaming and snorting, the impatient sounds of calves waiting to happen.
The cowboys drove them into a fenced-in chute and finally into a pen next to the barn.
The bulls had wet, messy snouts and dripping mouths, and huffed clouds of breath. A couple dozen Red Angus were let into the pen. They pushed against each other, head to head, a few of them attempting to mount others from behind. Some scuffled in a corner and snapped a board on a gate. "Hammer," Stewart Adams called to another cowboy.
Bud Adams stiff-shuffled into the pen, into the middle, the soft dirt sticking to his shiny brown boots, and he faced the loose, kinetic semicircle of bulls. He conferred with one of his managers. His grandson stood close with a long prod just in case. Adams eyeballed this crop, looking at height, length and girth, and then he pointed at different bulls, picking which ones should be put next to which cows, to make the best possible calves.
"I don't like him," he said to the manager about one of the bulls, "but I like his calves."
Done, Adams left the pen, walked back through the barn and toward the office. He stopped near a car and put his hand on the side, steadying himself. Six days before, he had had a stent inserted in an artery of his heart. Now he tried to catch his breath. "Out of gas," he said.
Inside the office, he talked more about his land and about how much he loves it. "I hate to leave it," he said.
The gate at the headquarters of the Adams Ranch.
ADAMS DROVE his Explorer west on State Road 68, then north on U.S. 441, heading toward his ranch in Osceola County, the site of his two conservation easements.
He pointed out on the roadsides clutches of invasive Brazilian pepper trees. He said many people kill them by spraying herbicide. The Adams Ranch method: Pull them out. "We have a guy who goes in and just kills the Brazilian pepper," he said, "without touching the native vegetation."
He pointed out a small sign touting the future site of a community called Destiny. A big-shot developer and a co-founder of the Subway sandwich empire bought more than 40,000 acres of prairie to make another Orlando. It was a foolhardy idea from the get-go, in 2006, and it got worse from there. The economy didn't cooperate. The project stalled. Lawsuits followed. The planners are suing each other.
"They bought up all this land," Adams said.
He took a left on South Canoe Creek Road, then another left on a road toward his property, which started shortly after a sign that said PAVEMENT ENDS. He showed this bounty, too, more hammocks, more pasture, home to about 5,000 cows, twice that number of cattle depending on bulls and calves and the time of the year. He has seven miles of virgin Lake Marian lakefront. "There are a lot of eagles that feed in this lake," he said.
He drove past his old hunting lodge, where he used to go with his friends. Now his friends' sons go. The sons of their sons do. "All my friends are dead," Adams said.
It was quiet in the truck on the drive back, except for the high-pitched whine from Adams' hearing aids, a sound like a mechanical mosquito. Nobody said anything. Deference.
It was quiet, too, at regular noon lunch. Beef stew this time. A space heater in the corner kept the room warm. Adams' wife wore a white sweater and red nail polish. He fed her a coin-sized piece of carrot. It fell onto her front. She looked at him with those blue, unblinking eyes. He held a piece of meat on a fork in front of her face. She bit. She chewed.
"Good, good," Adams said.