Local News

Options for ranch land revealed

SEBRING - Portions of Blue Head Ranch may be sold in the future, other portions will be leased and some may grow new crops.

So says Pat Duane, vice president of SPP Land LLC, of Macon, Ga.

Southern Pines Plantations completed the $86.4 million purchase of the 66,167 acres of agricultural land in southwest Highlands County and southeast DeSoto County on Dec. 31. The ranch, formerly owned by the Ben Hill Griffin family and AtlanticBlue, is about 100 square miles of cattle and crops in Highlands County and two square miles of blueberries in DeSoto County.

Although Duane is moving forward with the ranch's current plans, "we are also reviewing everything we can do with it," he said.

That includes continuing the farming, ranching and hunting leases, but it also means exploring which crops would be suitable with Blue Head's water pumping permits. The South Florida Water Management District allows the ranch to pump 37.9 million gallons per day.

"We lease the land to the people who grow crops." Southern Pines is primarily a timber company, said Duane, who is in charge of Florida operations. "And that's out of the area for timber. It's more for a return on our investment."

Hunting leases are also a portion of the income. For instance, one 10,000-acre lease called Dark Hammock is advertised at $200,000 per year.

It has a 4,500-square-foot hunting lodge and a 2,000-square-foot guest cabin - big enough for a party 25 - plus a game room, outdoor barbecue, skeet range, walk-in cooler and game-cleaning station. The advertisement adds, "Personnel are in place to manage and maintain the facilities and to provide services such as supplying feeders and hunting stands."

However, Duane cautioned, "there are lots of rumors out there as to what's available. We had to tell one real estate company to cease and desist, ASAP."

The ranch is managed for hunting leases, he said. "We try to keep the quality of game there. We are following good game management practices."

Duane considers about 20,020 acres "non-productive for agriculture. We would sell off that portion of the land."

Twice in the past three years, the former owners of Blue Head sold conservation easements to the federal government, accepting $54 million. About 17,800 acres of those 20,020 are in the federal Wetlands Reserve Program.

"About the only thing you're allowed to do is hunt and run cattle," Duane said, and future permission may be needed to graze cattle.

"You're no longer able to manage your own land," Duane said. "Two years from now, they may come along and say, 'No cattle,' because they own the cattle-grazing rights. You can't fertilize. You can't improve the pasture. They are allowing us to control burn some of it."

That conservation easement is one reason why Blue Head sold for $1,307 per acre when other ranches are worth more.

Add $86.5 million to $54 million, Duane said, and "that's the true price they got out of it. It's not the same land if you can't generate income on it."

The 17,800 acres are valuable for now as cattle grazing land or hunting leases though, Duane said.

Blue Head also is included in a Highlands County master plan to build 12,000 housing units.

"We put no value on that for two reasons," Duane said. "We are not developers. And the second thing is that it's in the county plan, but we never found final approval with the state."

The Department of Community Affairs was absorbed by other agencies after Rick Scott was elected governor.

Strawberries are a possibility at Blue Head, Duane said, but the crop is labor intensive and he's not interested until the labor exists to pick the crop in Highlands County. He thinks its more likely that Blue Head is suitable for the vegetables that are grown in Hendry County.

Farmers and those interested in hunting leases should call him, Duane said, at (352) 867-8018.


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