Title: 1999 Ag-Environmental: Two Rivers Ranch
Type: Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award
Robert M. Thomas, President, Two Rivers Ranch: I have to say that the sensitivity of ecological values is something that’s been around and been drilled into us by my grandfather and my father that there's more to a piece of property than what you can grow grass or how many cows you can run or how many pine trees you can plant. And, of course, that forward thinking of 65 or 70 years ago is what has created this beautiful landscape.
The Two Rivers Ranch, named for the Hillsborough River and Blackwater Creek that converge on the property is a cow/calf and timber operation. Stretching across Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, the ranch is made up of over 14,000 acres of improved pasture and planted pines. But the property was far different when Robert M. Thomas's grandfather Wayne Thomas first began purchasing it in 1932. The ancient flatwoods that once blanketed Florida were clear cut at the turn of the century, leaving behind a rattled landscape. To restore the land, Wayne Thomas began a long-term reforestation project on Two Rivers Ranch.
Robert M. Thomas: My granddad started experimenting with planted pine trees as an agricultural crop, as a way to generate revenue to help own the land and pay for the land and cover the expenses.
Over time, his pioneering conservation efforts helped to replenish the soil, and reduced surface water run-off. Wildlife, long missing from the property, slowly returned to the new habitat. Pine trees, planted as a crop, helped to improve this once-barren landscape. Nearly seventy years later the ranch is still reaping the benefits of planting for the future.
Robert M. Thomas: To grow trees takes time. They don't grow overnight. So it’s a long-term crop and you really have to have faith in the future. The cutting that we were looking at this morning, I helped plant those trees in 1977. So here we are 22 years later and they're on their way to market. So it’s pretty neat, but it’s just like growing corn or soy beans or any other agricultural crop; it just takes a lot longer. Philosophically, you know, the decisions where those pine trees were going to be planted were made years ago.
Innovation has always been a family tradition on Two Rivers Ranch. In the 1970s, Wayne Thomas's son Bob began planting pines around wetlands. His new "contour pine planting" technique allowed the trees to utilize nutrients in the surface water. It garnered Bob Thomas the prestigious "Tree Farmer of the Year" award for 1976. He also developed the concept of planting pines in stages as a visual screen along highways. Third-generation tree farmer Robert Thomas is constantly looking to news ways to improve the land through aesthetic forestry techniques.
Robert M. Thomas: Instead of just completely clear cutting that area, what we decided we would do is to leave approximately 10 to 15 trees to the acre and leave them in a way that would tend to look natural so that those trees begin to drop some cones and that will eventually give a certain pine dimension to what would otherwise be native range after clear cut.
Two Rivers Ranch has been owned by the Thomases for almost 70 years. A family-run ranch, it is currently watching its fourth generation learn the family business. Having this direct connection to the land, Robert Thomas feels the property is best managed by the people who know it.
Robert M. Thomas: The ecological richness and diversity that we see in the state of Florida is the result of good stewardship by private owners and agricultural operators of land that have been doing it for generations. We're in favor of certain amounts of public ownership. But I just feel very strongly that if Florida is going to have a future economically and ecologically that agriculture is going to play a big role in that. And if we put agricultural people out of business it does not bode well for the future of the state of Florida. I just personally feel that it’s better off in private hands and it gets managed more appropriately.
Proven land management techniques are used throughout Two Rivers Ranch. To enhance the cow/calf operation the improved pastures are actively managed through controlled burns and seeding of legumes. The native ranges, however, are less intensively managed.
Robert M. Thomas: It takes a lot of energy to maintain, improve pasture, etc. So it dawned on us that by managing native rangeland for grass, native grasses, we would need no fertilizer. The grasses grow there anyway. So by managing those native grasses we have some beautiful range lands that maybe don't carry quite as many cows as the improved pasture intensively managed. But they certainly don't require near the overhead. They don't require the fertilization, the mowing and all the other input costs. The other nice thing about native range is that it provides a real good winter pasture for the cattle.
The multiple land-use practice employs rotational grazing of the improved pastures, native ranges and forested lands. An emphasis is also placed on herd size.
Robert M. Thomas: We try to be thoughtful, put things in context and look at the overall scheme of things. We run a cow-calf operation but from our perspective we probably run cows at less density than a lot of operations. Part of the reason we do that is because the cows graze the entire property. So if you're growing young pine trees or have stands of pines, if you have too many cows you'll have a negative impact on the pines. Also, too many cows can also have a negative impact on water quality. They can also have a negative impact on vegetation and wetlands. So we tend to try to look at things in a balance and say well, you know, a lower intensity operation on the cattle facilitates the timber production and the tree farming and it also improves water quality and it also enhances the wildlife populations.
Since Wayne Thomas began his conservation program in the early 1930s, Two Rivers Ranch has received numerous state and national awards for its efforts -- among them, the Florida Audubon Society Corporate Award for its outstanding protection of ecosystems, and the 1993 American Farmland Trust Agricultural Conservation Award. And in 1995 Robert M. Thomas was named the Florida Wildlife Federation and National Wildlife Federation's Land Conservationist of the Year, an award his father Bob received twenty years prior.
Because of Two Rivers commitment to land conservation, the ranch has become home to a diverse wildlife population. Fox squirrels and gopher tortoises now roam the property. Turkey and quail are quite common. But for Robert Thomas, it was the sight of deer on the ranch that spurred him to pursue wildlife management on the property.
Robert M. Thomas: I cannot remember ever seeing a deer on this property until I was 12 or 14 years old. There were no deer for all practical purposes. When we began to manage the deer, the original transects show that we had a deer for every 250 to 300 acres. That was approximately 15 years ago. And now having managed specifically for white tailed deer, we now have a deer for every thirty acres. So we have five times as many deer now as we did 15 years ago when we first started consciously trying to manage that species.
Two Rivers Ranch has the largest piece of privately owned undeveloped property in Hillsborough County. From within its quiet confines, it's hard to imagine that just 20 miles away is the city of Tampa. An estimated 3 million people live within a 50-mile radius of the ranch, and are moving closer. As Two Rivers Ranch actively works to hold onto its natural beauty, it can feel the pressure of this urban encroachment.
Robert M. Thomas: Of course the easy route would be to develop portions of the property and build golf courses, build a community or a new town, but I'd still like to think that there’s a way out of it for us and that somehow we could come up with a strategy to preserve if not all, certainly a large portion of this property in agricultural open space.
A significant portion of the flow of the Hillsborough River, which feeds Tampa, comes from sources on the ranch. As the population of Tampa increases, so does the demand for water. To find a solution, the Tampa Bay Water Authority is forming a public/private partnership with Two Rivers Ranch.
Robert M. Thomas: We're going to develop a sustainable yield of ground water and make that available to help solve the water supply challenge of the Tampa Bay area. So this is a new crop for us, and it’s an important opportunity for us as well as for the community to develop these resources.
The pristine Crystal Springs, which produces about 40 million gallons a day, provides significant flow to the Hillsborough River. In the late 1980s, Crystal Springs Recreational Preserve, Inc., also owned by the Thomas Family, developed a partnership with Zephyrhills Natural Spring Water Company, turning this natural resource into a valuable crop. The quality of the water has not gone unnoticed; it was sent to the Gulf War to supply the troops of Desert Storm, and has also become the official bottled water of theme parks like Epcot and Disney World.
Robert M. Thomas: The natural spring water that we bottle, millions of people all over the state of Florida drink it. Nobody’s washing their car with this water; nobody’s watering their front lawn with this water. This water all goes for direct human consumption. If there is a higher and better use I, for the life of me, can't think of one.
The Thomas Family's longtime commitment to conservation began with its donation of the land for Hillsborough State Park in 1936, followed in 1973 by a donation of an additional one hundred and fifteen acres for the restoration of Fort Foster. Today, the ranch still allows canoe access for those who still want to enjoy the pristine setting around the Hillsborough River.
Robert M. Thomas: You know, stewardship is an interesting concept, but it can be as complicated as you want to make it; or it can be as simple as this: try to leave it a little bit better than you found it in everyway. And do the best with what you can with what you've got to work with. That’s basically the underpinning of Two Rivers Ranch. That’s the message; that’s what this exercise is all about. You just get up every day and do that. Do the best you can; and try not to go broke.