Commissioner's Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award
Lightsey Cattle Company
Lake Wales, Florida
For 12 generations the name Lightsey has been associated with cattle ranching. Since the 1850s, in Central Florida, there have been six generations who have worked the land, each passing down to the next not only their property, but also their values and traditions.
But in today’s development-driven climate, ranching families like the Lightseys are forced to make tough decisions that will affect future generations. At a time when many farms sell to developers, the Lightseys have been working to protect and preserve their piece of Florida. For them, the land, the family, and the ranching way of life are interwoven.
“Stewardship is more than just stewardship of the land,” said Layne Lightsey, co-owner of Lightsey Cattle Company. “It’s really stewardship of the family, too. In order to have stewardship of the land, you have to have stewardship of the family. ‘How am I going to take these values to the next generation?’ ‘How am I going to take this love for the land to the next generation?’ And they literally have to grow up with it and learn it just like I did. And that’s what we’ve tried to accomplish for our family.”
Owned and operated by brothers Layne and Cary, the Lightsey Cattle Company, based in Lake Wales, is made up of four separate ranches -- Tiger Lake Ranch and West Lake Wales Ranch in Polk County, the XL Ranch in Highlands County, and Brahma Island in Osceola County. The Lightseys also lease five other ranches where they raise cattle.
Though the operation is spread out over three counties, when it’s time to work the cattle, the extended family gathers at the Tiger Lake Ranch. The hard work leads to lunch, where they catch up on family business. Working the cattle is truly a family operation. On these days, Cary and Layne’s wives, kids and grandkids all do their part.
“I think that’s the most important part is to have a wonderful lifestyle, to be able to raise your children in clean wholesome fun, and working hard,” said Marcia Lightsey, secretary and bookkeeper of the Lightsey Cattle Company. “They had their share of chores. There was never a dull moment around here with their show animals and just doing their chores on the ranch. But it really helped them develop into who they are today and the way they’re raising their children.”
The Lightseys raise about 5,400 head of cattle, but only 50 percent of the ranch’s income comes from its cow/calf operation. That hasn’t always been the case, though; for decades the family relied primarily on ranching to pay the bills. But when Cary and Layne’ father, Doyle Lightsey, died at an early age in 1973, the family was saddled with a huge estate tax. Although they had always been a cattle family, the Lightseys realized it was time to diversify. Their initial solution was to open up their pristine Brahma Island to guided commercial hunting. Working closely with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Lightseys helped develop criteria for guided hunting that is now the standard for Florida for hunting preserves throughout the state.
The venture proved very successful. Not only did the guided hunts pay down the ranch’s taxes, they helped to control wildlife populations on Brahma Island. The Lightseys continued to diversify. They planted 540 acres of citrus groves at the Tiger Lake Ranch. They turned to truck farming, timber harvesting, and sod and seed production as well. In an effort to utilize more of the ranch’s resources, they started harvesting palmetto berries for nutraceutical purposes. And when the Audubon Society and Sierra Club asked to observe the ranch’s pristine natural landscapes and abundant wildlife, the family began giving ecological tours of the property, offering the public a chance to see an untouched piece of Florida history.
“We feel the eco-tourism is a very important part of our industry, mainly for the reason that you bring the non-rural people, the city dwellers, out to your ranch,” said Marcia Lightsey. “You show them the trees and the green space that provides them the clean air and clean water. They enjoy having the benefit of seeing the wildlife.”
“Our family has always had a philosophy of leaving at least 40 percent of our land native,” said Cary Lightsey, co-owner of Lightsey Cattle Company. “Florida has a very sensitive ecosystem. And I’m afraid if we go in there and start rearranging God’s creation it might come back to bite you someday. So we feel like the native land that we left alone gives our wildlife a corridor to be able to live their life like it was intended.”
As stewards of the land, the Lightseys recognize the responsibilities of their unique situation; each of their ranches sits at the headwaters of the largest restoration project in the world, the Florida Everglades. In order to help return the water system to its natural state, the Lightseys see it as their duty to ensure the quality of water as it leaves their property. To accomplish this, they have implemented a number of conservation systems on their lands.
Cutting across the XL Ranch is Boothill Creek. In 1964, a previous owner dammed the creek, flooding an area of oaks, bay heads and pine islands to create a reservoir. The native vegetation was killed and much of the wildlife habitat was lost. In an effort to return this area to its previous state, the Lightsey family was the first to partner with the Nature Conservancy on a pilot program called Florida Lands and Outstanding Waters, or FLOW. Since the Lightseys have lowered the reservoir’s water level and restored the natural flow on the property, the native vegetation is thriving and the wildlife is returning. A dozen black bears have made the XL Ranch their home, as has the threatened scrub jay. Gopher tortoises have successfully been relocated from heavily developed sites in Southeast Florida.
Due to the Lightseys’ knowledge of the land and their stewardship ethic, they were chosen by the Archbold Biological Station -- an independent non-profit organization specializing in ecological research and conservation -- to partner in the restoration of a 3,500-acre reserve adjacent to the XL Ranch.
Other important conservation practices include rotational grazing, and controlled pasture burning. The orange groves at the Tiger Lake Ranch use low-volume microjets for irrigation. Excess water from the grove beds empties into a rim ditch where it flows into a large containment area, and is then distributed over a 120-acre pasture. The grasses use nutrients from the water as fertilizer. The water quality leaving the ranch is excellent, proven by over 30 years of testing.
Perhaps the most significant contribution the Lightseys have made toward the preservation of their land -- and their way of life -- is the establishment of conservation easements. Through these legally binding contracts, the family retains ownership of the property and the right to continue using it as they always have. Government agencies or conservation groups buy the rights to keep the land from ever being developed. Today, nearly 70 percent of all the Lightseys’ property is in seven different types of easements -- preserving the land, wildlife and Florida’s history.
“The public needs to be aware that we need to do everything we can to keep agriculture in business because it’s vital to the state of Florida,” said Layne Lightsey. “Most people want to see green space. They’re not crazy about seeing asphalt and buildings, and that’s what replaces agriculture -- asphalt and buildings. I think that’s the message we’ve got to get to this next generation: ‘You’re going to miss this once it’s gone. Don’t ever take it for granted because you’ll never get it back.’”
The jewel of the Lightseys’ land is Brahma Island. Located in Lake Kissimmee, it has 3,300 acres with 11 1/2 miles of shoreline. While it is also home to one of Florida’s most unique cattle operations, as well as guided hunting and ecotours, the island is recognized by a number of environmental groups as a haven for wildlife and natural beauty.
“It’s hard to talk about Brahma Island without getting a smile on your face,” said Cary Lightsey. “The island is really made up of a lot of terrains. It’s got a little bit of every piece of Florida in it: marsh land, saw grass flats, sand dunes around the shorelines, ancient oak hammock, hickory hammocks and prehistoric scrubs. The island’s got the oldest live oak in peninsular Florida, over 380 years old. It’s got an Indian development that dates back to 10,000 years ago. And palmettos, wire grass flats, pine tree thickets. But the neat thing about Brahma Island is the endangered species. There’s actually 28 different endangered species on Brahma Island, the most of anywhere in North America. And it’s got 14 different eagles’ nests on the island. We’ve counted over 80 eagles at one sitting.”
Eggs from these active bald eagle nests were transplanted to an avian research center in Oklahoma for repopulation efforts across the United States. Thanks to the Lightseys’ efforts for conservation easements, virtually all of Brahma Island is protected from development.
For years, the Lightseys have worked on environmental stewardship projects with a wide variety of environmental groups, including the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Forest Service, University of Florida Extension Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society.
The Lightsey family has made a genuine commitment to preserve and protect their land. As leaders in the agricultural community, they are dedicated to continuing the ranching culture, always looking for innovative ways to ensure the ranches remain economically strong and environmentally rich. And they take their responsibility as stewards of the land, and of the family, very seriously.
“The next generation has just got to understand, has got to have a feel of, what Florida is and what is quickly being lost,” said Charlotte Lightsey, wife of Layne Lightsey and a retired teacher. “We’ve got to do that by taking them out and letting them see the eagles, letting them see things that need to be protected, the grasslands and the wire grass and scrubs and things like that. They need to feel it. They need to get a heart for it.”
Said Layne Lightsey: “That’s probably one of the biggest challenges we deal with, is just having our children and grandchildren have a love for the land and make sure they feel a part of that. They’re a part of that management that goes on as we pass this baton on to them.”
“We’re really just landlords of this land if you really think about it,” said Cary Lightsey. “I feel like that we have the opportunity to protect this land and leave it as God intended it. I feel like it’s our job to protect it for the people of Florida. I feel like I’m probably the luckiest man I know. I get to work with my kids and grandkids every day and I get to see God’s creation out here. It’s just an unbelievable lifestyle.” -- 2006
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- 2006 Agricultural Environmental Leadership Awards Booklet (PDF)
- Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award Nomination (PDF)