By: Katelyn Newman, U.S. News
AS THE SUN BEGINS TO rise and the mist breaks on a clear Florida morning, wild turkeys, white-tailed deer and pesky feral pigs rummage for breakfast near Sabal palms and hay bales. Less than a football field away, a cadre of black, brown and white cattle start to graze.
Pointing out the multiple species, rancher Jim Strickland slowly inches his white pickup truck through the nearly untouched underbrush on his 4,530-acre property, taking care not to disturb the morning meals.
"About all I ever wanted to do is this," the sixth-generation beef cattle rancher says as he drives around his Blackbeard's Ranch property in Manatee County. "There's pictures of me with a cowboy hat, riding a stick horse, when I was little – so this is pretty much all I wanted to do."
Strickland, wearing a dirt and dust-stained cowboy hat he's had for more than a decade, says he's always considered himself a cowboy. His family has been raising cattle in Florida since the Civil War, and after his father passed away unexpectedly when Strickland was 17, he inherited the family business. Blackbeard's is one of several ranch properties Strickland manages with a business partner – he estimates he oversees about 18,000 acres of land across the Sunshine State's Manatee, DeSoto, Levy and Marion counties.
Yet deeply seated within Strickland's ranching roots is a desire to preserve the wild Florida he grew up with, an area he's seen chipped away over the last 60 years – and especially in the last decade – by land development and population growth from all directions.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Florida was among the five fastest-growing states in the U.S. in 2017. And as the population in the southwest part of the state has expanded, with people from around the world lured by the region's beaches and retirement-friendly environment, ranchers like Strickland are working to maintain their family legacies and the state's agribusiness, while simultaneously striving to provide protection for private land that's increasingly vulnerable to human impact…