The 2003 Winner: Jennie Lee Zipperer
An outstanding representative of Florida agriculture, Jennie Lee Zipperer has made significant contributions in both the horticulture and cattle industry. As a horticulturist, she developed several varieties of hybrid gladiola that helped build Zipperer Farms into one of the foremost producers of that flower. As a cattle breeder, she established one of the preeminent purebred Beefmaster herds in the nation and has been active in promoting the Florida cattle industry around the world.
Jennie Lee was born in Fort Myers, the daughter of Howard Wheeler, a prominent building contractor in the 1920s and 1930s who was the original developer of Edison Park and the founder of Wheeler Brothers Construction Company. Jennie Lee married into Florida agriculture in 1953 when she became the wife of John O. Zipperer Jr., then a student in the College of Agriculture at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Zipperer’s father, John Sr., had come to Sebring in 1929 and established a fernery to ship floral ferns to northern florists. He entered the gladiolus business in 1932 and moved it to Fort Myers in 1938. In 1944 the business became Zipperer Farms, as it is known today.
Over the years, the established varieties of gladiolus began to weaken and were unable to maintain the sizes and standards required by Zipperer Farms. A search of the country showed that superior varieties were nowhere to be found, so Jennie Lee became involved in the development of the farm’s own gladiolus varieties. She embarked on an intense program of cross-breeding commercially successful varieties with unrelated varieties that had certain desirable traits. Through careful selection and record keeping, the strongest and most disease-resistant varieties were created. This yielded varieties that were suitable for winter cut flower production in South Florida.
“It took two years to get to the point where we could walk down the rows and judge whether a flower had good-colored florets, evenly placed on a tall, straight spike,” Jennie Lee said. “We might go through half a million flowers before we got to one that might work. Then it would take six to eight more years of testing before a seedling could be deemed commercially viable.”
Gladiolus fields lay fallow for three years before replanting, and to make use of the land the family decided to plant pastures and raise cattle.
“I always tell the story that there are only so many creative ways you can clean a bathtub,” she said. “So while I was working on the house I would plan what I wanted to do with my cattle.”
In 1960, Jennie Lee purchased a small herd of cross-bred Florida cattle and accomplished the considerable achievement of bringing the herd’s conception rate up to 95 percent. In the early 1970s, Zipperer Farms bought a group of Black Baldie cows and achieved significant improvements in the weights of their calves by breeding them with Beefmaster bulls. Those results were so promising that she entered into a business separate from Zipperer Farms’ commercial cattle raising. Zipperer Beefmasters was born.
The requirements of cattle breeding differ from those of cattle ranching, and Jennie Lee made use of her experience breeding chinchillas, quarter horses and flowers, as well as the training in science and genetics she had received while attending the University of Florida.
At the outset, most Beefmaster herds were multi-sired. To achieve control of the herd’s breeding and genetics, it was necessary to go to single sires, with detailed records maintained for each animal. In time, this became the requirements for all registered Beefmasters.
Using sophisticated techniques such as artificial insemination, embryo transfer, and careful selection, she created Beefmaster cattle that have the best possible qualities -- including high weight gain and good beef quality -- and that also pass those qualities on to their offspring. Feed tests made use of electronic ear tags to identify when a certain animal fed on food that was precisely weighed before and after the animal ate. The animal was weighed every 30 days, and the numbers were correlated to identify those that converted feed the best. But the final test was always the animal’s actual performance.
“A purebred is supposed to be a superlative commercial cow, but just because she’s got a piece of paper doesn’t mean she’s any good,” Jennie Lee said. “A cow has to produce a quality product.”
Away from the ranch, Jennie Lee has been active in the Southeastern Beefmaster Breeders Association, where she has held the position of director, secretary, treasurer, vice president, and president. As president of the organization, she was able to achieve over $1.6 million at the Southeastern Sales Auction, a first for the Beefmaster industry. She also served on the board of directors of the Central States Beefmaster Breeders Association and as vice president of that organization.
At the national level, she served as a member of the board of directors of Beefmasters Breeders United (BBU) and as its vice president. She also served on BBU’s Nominating Committee and its Finance and Audit Committee. She chaired the BBU Long Range Planning Committee for two years, and in 1992 was elected the organization’s first woman president its 40-year history.
In recognition of her many accomplishments in the Florida cattle industry, Jennie Lee
was named the Southeastern Beefmaster Breeders Association’s Member of the Year for 1991 and the BBU Breeder of the Year in 1995.
Through all her years of ranch work, Jennie Lee has still found time to be part of her community. She has served as a Sunday School teacher, a Den Mother in the Cub Scouts and Brownies, and has been involved in the PTA and other school activities. She has been active in political campaigns, chaired the College Parkway Council, and was appointed to the Lee County Planning Commission. Jennie Lee also helped establish the Jasmine Garden Club and served as president of the Fort Myers/Lee County Garden Council. Her participation in garden clubs began as a means to learn flower arranging for her home, but during her 45-year involvement expanded to include civic functions, flower shows, beautification projects, and helping local governments to adopt needed planning regulations.
“As far as I’m concerned, garden clubs are an important part of agriculture,” she said. “And they’re good promoters of agriculture because they provide ongoing educational programs on horticulture, beautification and the environment.”
Jennie Lee and John have four children -- John III, Dianne, Douglas, and Jennie Elizabeth -- 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.