This episode was recorded at SVN | Saunders Ralston Dantzler’s 2023 Lay of the Land Conference. Focusing on Florida's agricultural market, Richard Dempsey, ALC, CIPS invites industry experts to discuss the impacts of their specific fields within this evolving market. The panel features Glenn Beck of Beck Brothers Citrus, Jimmy Bielling of the Florida Forestry Association, David Hill of Southern Hills Farms, and John Williamson of Williamson Cattle Company.
Below is an excerpt from the interview. Listen above for the full podcast.
Where is your industry in today's real estate world? (Jimmy Bielling) Pre-pandemic, our economy was great. Equipment was easy to come by, there were low-interest rates for acquisition of new equipment, supply chains were functioning properly, we had adequate labor available to us, and we had reasonable stumpage and lumber prices at that time.
As COVID and other influences came into play, we had extremely high fuel prices, we had labor shortages to deal with, supply chain disruptions, parts, and other things became so difficult to get, even a drum of 15W40 oil became hard to come by. That price inflation really kicked in. A drum of oil used to be like $500-550 and our last drum was probably $1,500 plus. We've seen a tremendous change in our cost of doing business.
Post-pandemic, things have pretty much remained the same with high fuel, labor issues, and still a supply chain issue with a lack of some parts. We've waited as much as three months to get parts to repair some of our equipment. All in all, while there are some things here and there that really seem a little off, the land prices have remained. I don't know if it's money coming out of the market, but there has been a tremendous amount of money. We have seen large tracts of 40,000 to 50,000 acres that have brought good money and we look back at that and say, “Maybe that was a good deal.” So there's a little bit of irony compared to what we're seeing in our day-to-day operation cost, but there are lots of opportunities in the timber business.
Where we are, we have a tremendous wood basket for one, but we also have a tremendous market to merchandise our wood. Equipment is also pretty sophisticated for this day and time. Even though we've seen difficulties in our operating costs, labor shortages, and those kinds of things, we're still pretty strong.
What are your thoughts on Citrus Under Protective Screen (C.U.P.S.) systems? (Glenn Beck) It definitely works, but it puts you at risk. Not only the trees, but the structure itself is at risk from hurricanes. It’s a little bit of a different market, but it was born out of necessity to grow fruit any way that we can. It’s also a risk to engage in that kind of cost when you're ultimately gonna be in the same market with the field-grown fruit, which can obviously be cheaper. Then there are the foreign markets as well.
The ones who have done it thus far have been very successful at it as they keep going, but it's the price. It’s not the cost of the land, but if you do have the land and you put the structure on it, put in the irrigation, and then plant the grove, you have close to $100,000 an acre. If it's a large piece of land, maybe $85,000 an acre. You're always fighting something, even within a C.U.P.S. system. While you've eliminated a couple of your problems, all the others remain.
I think it's great and the ones that are doing it so far are doing well, but you'll never see the massive acreage in a C.U.P.S. system that you’ll see in the field-grown area. Currently, with the state of the industry and as bad as it's been, it encompasses about 375,000 acres, but we're confident that the industry is going to survive in the field. Hopefully, we won’t have to [switch to C.U.P.S.].
What can “ag people” and environmentalists do to protect their land? (David Hill) The farmers are really bad because they're busy farming and they don't want to tell their story. They run from a microphone.
The people in the Everglades are schooling the media and politicians about what's going on in a way that they have a voice at the table that matters. They're letting the state of Florida know how important they are and all the things they do. So, the biggest thing we can do is to be transparent, be vocal, tell our point of view, and not hide from the media.
When we were getting kicked out of Lake Apopka, I stopped giving interviews because we were made out to be the “bad guys”. I was used to the farmer being the “good guy” and now we were painted as being the “bad guys”. It was kind of hard to swallow, but things have changed now. Before, people didn't seem like they wanted to know about the farmers, but now people want to know about the farm. That's why we started this agritourism thing. People want to come out, they want to get to know their farmer, they want to know what's going on, they want to see their food, and they want to pick their food. It's been good, but for three years, I felt like the bad guy. It was kind of a political movement, but also it was our fault that we didn't speak up. I just think that farmers need to be out there, be willing to talk to the media, and tell their story.
What kind of job opportunities are in agriculture? (Jimmy Bielling) I think there are a lot of opportunities, particularly for land management foresters coming out of wherever. UF has got a great school. At FSU, we have a lab for an operations class. Georgia, Clemson, and a lot of schools are preparing students to come out here and be good technicians, but as well be good land managers, understand the problems that we face every day, and be good stewards.
Some of it will come genetically because it's what they've grown up doing, but there are so many opportunities. These students that come out of our operations class, I see them having great opportunities and adding a lot to our industry.
Do you ever face pressure to develop your land? (John Williamson) I think there's tremendous pressure. For a lot of us, it goes back to legacy. I'm fourth generation and I have two teenage sons who hopefully want to be involved in agriculture, so that puts us in a position of not wanting to sell, but definitely to look at the conservation easement route.
To start with, I just want to see that property looking the same way it does today in 100 years and not be rooftops. I know we can't do that with all the land in the state, but with the recent appropriations like Florida Forever, it really excites me that these lands will stay in agriculture. It does strip away development rights, but they're still able to run cattle and grow timber, along with different lower-intensity farming. To me, that's the ultimate answer if we're gonna keep ag in the state because, at some point, you can't look away from the value of the land and the return that you're getting with agriculture. I think through Florida Forever, hopefully, for the next four years, it'll have a big impact on that.
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