Agriculture-Environmental Leadership Award
2003 Ag-Environmental: Williamson Cattle Company
Agriculture-Environmental Leadership Award
Frank “Sonny” Williamson Jr, President, Williamson Cattle Company: Dad and I talked about the idea that we did not want to destroy the wonderful environmental qualities that we saw all around us. We wanted to keep most of that beauty and I’m talking about the, the swamp lands and the hammock lands and some of the pine forests and the palmetto areas have been kept also. So we just developed that area that for cattle it was the best for that forage and for citrus it was just the very best for growing citrus trees. And we left a large part of the ranch in its natural environmental condition.
Seven generations of the Williamson family have been in Florida since the late 1840s. While the family has been in agriculture for nearly eighty years, it wasn’t until 1950 — when Sonny’s father, Frank Williamson Sr. acquired property in Okeechobee County — that the Williamson Cattle Company got its start. For more than 50 years the ranch has been managed with a vision for the future while still working in concert with the natural habitat.
For instance, of the 9,000-acre Okeechobee property, 30 percent of it is in woodlands that the cattle have access to, but is not grazeable. The ranch raises quality commercial Brangus cattle for the feeder calf markets in the feedlot states. The calves require very little supplemental feed, taking advantage instead of the forage’s long growing season in South Florida.
Diversity has always played a part in the development of the company. From a few stands of citrus tree planted in the early 1950s, the ranch is now home to 1,100 acres of citrus. The groves produce red and white grapefruit for the fresh export market, going primarily to Japan and Europe, while early and late season oranges are grown for the processed orange juice market.
Frank Wesley “Wes” Williamson III, General Manager, Williamson Cattle Company Diversification I feel like is kind of the backbone of Williamson Cattle Company. And I think the diversification, not having all your eggs in one basket or not having to rely solely on just what the price of one commodity has been very valuable to us.
Using technology, the company is able to track each commodity, helping it remain economically viable. To reduce production costs without decreasing production, the ranch uses computer programs to follow trends in the marketplace.
Wes Williamson: The spreadsheets that we’re able to use to analyze each crop and its return and its cost, whether we’re figuring on a per pound of beef, per pound of fish, or per box of oranges is just incredible. I mean, I can’t hardly imagine how we got along without it for so many years.
Wes has developed a computerized method of closely monitoring phosphorus inputs and outputs to address water quality issues associated with Lake Okeechobee. He tracks phosphorus coming onto the ranch as supplements in the form of feed and fertilizers versus phosphorus leaving the ranch as products in the form of cattle, citrus and sod. The results show that all the phosphorus supplements are utilized in the production process as evidenced by tests that show that the water leaving the Williamson Cattle Company has the least amount of phosphorus per liter of any tributary in the basin.
The ranch also helps conserve the region’s groundwater supply by using reclaimed water from the surrounding urban area. In an agreement with the City of Okeechobee, the company’s groves utilize non-potable water from the municipal system for irrigation, thus decreasing the amount of water drawn from the aquifer.
The Williamsons feel strongly about ranchers and farmers getting involved. Leading by example, the Williamsons have voluntarily assisted agencies during regulatory development and have allowed a three-year nutrient management experiment on their ranch’s pastures. By giving governmental agencies a first-hand look at their needs and practices, ranchers help regulators make more informed decisions that impact Florida agriculture.
Sonny: “You can affect a much better solution if those who are with the land every day, trying to raise those food products are on the boards, in the room giving their side.”
Some of Sonny’s civic involvement includes having served as a governing board member on the South Florida Water Management District for eight years. He is currently very active in civic, ag-related environmental committees as well as several university boards. Wes serves as the President of the Okeechobee Cattlemen’s Association and on the Executive Committee of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association.
As Wes has taken on much of the management of the two ranches, Sonny has been able to devote more of his time to sharing his knowledge of agriculture and taking leadership roles in advancing progressive practices. As chair of the Aquaculture Advisory Committee, Sonny has been involved in the Shrimp Demonstration Project in Fort Pierce. Funded by the Florida Department of Agriculture and administered by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the project promotes sustainable agriculture through shrimp farming.
Sonny: “We have got to have food for this planet and we have many, many people underfed on this planet today. So we’ve got to find ways to perhaps even intensify the production of agriculture so that we can protect more and more acres. Remember that when agriculture is not intense then we will have to use more and more acres of the land that we want to preserve and protect.
The company’s desire to preserve the natural quality of the land is much like the family’s interest in preserving the history of what they call “the Heart of Florida”.
Betty Chandler Williamson, Matriarch, Okeechobee County: Historian: “We are a little bit different; we’re the interior of Florida. We’re not the palm trees, we’re not the ocean, but we have the lake and we’re proud it. And we have a great heritage here. We’re just proud of our way of life.”
Mrs. Betty Chandler Williamson’s interests and hard work have yielded a book on the history of Okeechobee, a video chronicling the settling of Okeechobee, and a mural depicting the first permanent settlers in 1896.
It’s this type of respect for their surroundings that has shaped the company’s concept of stewardship. The Williamsons’ efforts have illustrated that, with forethought and vision, agriculturalists are indeed the most responsible stewards of the land.
Sonny Williamson: “The question of stewardship of the lands is one that I think is almost a spiritual question in a way and if you have responsibility for a piece of land, a large parcel of land particularly, you have to decide early on that that land will be in your care for almost a blink of time in, in the scheme of things. And so you can milk it and ruin it or you can enhance it and leave it for the millennia literally that are coming in, in better condition. So I think it takes a view of the land as almost a sacred trust, that you must leave in better condition than you found it. Assuming that, you need to also produce some food and that’s, also a sort of a sacred trust, producing food for people to eat. That’s his frame of mind. That’s a frame of mind of preserving and protecting the land for future generations that one has to acquire.