Williamson Cattle Company of Okeechobee
More than a half century ago, Frank Williamson Sr. founded the Williamson Cattle Company, and today the business is still a family operation. Frank “Sonny” Williamson Jr. and his son, Frank “Wes” Williamson III, run the ranch and citrus operation in Okeechobee while Wes’ son, John Williamson, runs another part of the cattle operation and a catfish farm in west central Alabama. Sonny’s wife, Betty, has helped with ranching activities over the years and was also involved in writing a book chronicling the historical agricultural development of the area.
“My father’s father came to Florida in 1896, and my father followed right after that, coming to Okeechobee in about 1941, and acquiring the land here about 1950,” Sonny said. “And the family has been developing the ranch ever since.”
Early on, the Williamsons also began growing citrus at their Okeechobee location, and in the 1970s bought additional land in Alabama on which they eventually decided to produce catfish as well as cattle.
The Williamsons’ diversification has been a solid strategy against the cyclic nature of agricultural prices. The ranch raises quality commercial Brangus cattle for the feeder calf markets in the feedlot states. Its citrus groves produce red and white grapefruit for the fresh export market, primarily in Japan and Europe, and early- and late-season oranges for processed orange juice. Fluctuations in catfish market prices are buffered by increased production achieved by feeding high-quality food from an Alabama feed mill in which the company is a partner.
“My dad used to say, ‘When you’re on a mountain top, beware, because there’s a valley coming,’” Sonny said. “Our diversity helps to level out the month-to-month cash flow and also some of the vagaries of the commodity markets.”
The Williamsons’ business decisions have always been made with an eye toward environmental concerns.
On their ranch, cattle have access to thousands of acres of grazable land. Most of the hammocks, pine forests, and swamps on the property have been left in their natural state to assure the aesthetic value of the property and promote the abundance of wildlife. With deer, turkey, and otters viewable in their natural settings, the decision to retain their habitat was an easy one. Furthermore, some improvements made in pasturing and foraging have not only increased the land’s capacity for cattle, but its capacity for wildlife as well.
“We loved the way the land looked, and we saw that as sort of a bottom-line benefit, the way making money would be a bottom-line benefit,” Sonny said. “And when you can ride through a place and love looking at the animals and the woodlands, that’s a kind of a pay day, too.”
Growing citrus introduces other complexities, such as the large quantities of water needed for irrigation, a need that has been supported for nearly 10 years by an agreement with the Okeechobee Utility Authority that lets the Williamsons use treated water reclaimed from the Okeechobee area. Studied and declared safe by the University of Florida, the water is clear and clean, and its use helps both agriculture and the local urban community.
The beef industry in Okeechobee County has been under intense regulation with respect to the quality of water runoff from the ranches, and the water leaving the Williamson Cattle Company has the least amount of phosphorous per liter of any tributary in the basin. The Williamsons have worked with the University of Florida to change some of the regulations on phosphorous fertilization of pasture grasses, and have actually developed a phosphorous budget that keeps track of all the phosphorous that comes onto the property in feed and fertilizer and all that leaves the property in the form of exports, which is basically beef cattle. “We found that we actually do a negative phosphorous balance, which means that we sell more phosphorous off the ranch than we bring in, in the way of fertilizer or minerals for the cattle,” Sonny said. “That’s a long-term goal that we should strive for in all of agriculture.”
The family’s catfish farming operation in Alabama requires stocking 8,000 to 10,000 fish per acre every year and feeding them a high-protein, soybean-based feed throughout the warmer summer months. Chemistry of the nutrient-rich water must be carefully managed, which can mean weekly and daily checks. Especially critical factors such as the water’s dissolved oxygen content are checked hourly.
The Williamsons have also been involved in many activities outside the Cattle Company. Sonny was on the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District for eight years, two as chairman. He is currently very active in civic and agriculturally related environmental committees as well as several university boards. Wes is the current president of the Okeechobee Cattlemen’s Association and is a frequent guest lecturer at the annual University of Florida Beef Short Course. He also chairs the steering committee responsible for directing rulemaking efforts for the Lake Okeechobee Protection Plan. John is a member of the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association and the Alabama Farmers Association.
Balancing a successful agricultural operation with Florida’s environmental concerns is a challenge the Williamsons have met head-on.
“We are a family-owned corporation, and we have a direction here,” Wes said. “We feel we have a responsibility to the owners of the Williamson Cattle Company before us and the owners of the company after us.