Agri Leader

Avon Park ranching family has a colorful history

The Glenn Murphy ranch in Avon Park offers a view you don't often see in flat central Florida. From a vantage point near the Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, the scenery unrolls down a vast, gentle slope of sunny cattle pastures dotted with trees and cows to the family's citrus grove on the western perimeter. The hill glides down and settles into neighboring ranchland to the east. Landscape like this is usually reserved for Georgia and northward. Glenn and Joy Murphy live on the 840 acres of property along with their grown children Del Murphy and Janice Brownell, and their families. Del and Janice work the ranch and groves along with Janice's daughter, Erin Brownell. This land has been in the Murphy family for going on five generations. In 2006, Glenn and Joy were inducted into the Florida Cracker Trail Association Hall of Fame.
My great-grandfather bought the land for $3.50 an acre, said Del. "He paid cash for it, which was a large sum of money back then." At one time the Murphy property spanned 20,000 acres, but Del's grandfather, Oakley Murphy began to sell it off around 1960. The Murphys have a strong agriculture history. Del's mother, Joy Murphy's agriculture roots go back as far as the late 1800s or early 1900s, said Del. She grew up helping her uncle work his cattle, and her father owned a meat packinghouse. Del's great-grandfather was a vegetable farmer and citrus grower. After being drafted into the Army in 1951, Del's father, Glenn, served 10 months in Korea, then came home to claim a piece of his dad's land and start his own ranch. He and Joy built their ranch from the ground up, some of the tales of which are captured in the 2008 book "Wild Florida, the Way it Was as Told By the Pioneer 'Cow Hunters' and 'Huntresses' Who Lived It" by Nancy Dale. And excerpt from the book describes how Joy used a reliable old horse as a babysitter for Del and Janice. She'd set the kids on its back while she and her husband worked cattle. Del remembers that, too. The horse was a palomino named Trigger, he recalled. "After a while we'd get tired of sitting on Trigger, and one of us would turn around, lay our head on his rump and go to sleep," Del said. He also remembers how his grandfather, after selling off the majority of his land, used the proceeds to start a racehorse business. He built a track and ran small races on their property as well as raced in bigger circuits. Del was light enough to be a jockey until he was 12 years old. "I ate myself out of a job," he joked. As a teen, like many young cowboys including his dad before him, Del found he enjoyed rodeoing. In 1974 he was the champion calf roper and reserve champion breakaway roper with the American Junior Quarter Horse Association. In 1978 he ended the year in second place in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association southeastern circuit calf roping standings. "I did it for enjoyment," Del said humbly. He usually won some money, but didn't make his living off of it. "From 1975 to about 1980 every summer I would take two weeks to two months and travel out west and go to rodeos," he recalled. One year he made it into the finals at the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo in Wyoming, also known as "the Daddy of 'em All." "It was on television on Wide World of Sports," said Del. "You'd go into the roping box and there was a big camera looking at you. I'd never done that before," he remarked. While it's fun to reminisce, these days there's plenty of work to be done. Although the ranch has been improved and modernized since the days when his dad started it, there are new forages to assess, solar-powered pumps to check on, coyotes and feral hogs to deter, and plenty of cattle to feed and care for. Since 1981 and the advent of micro-irrigation systems, the Murphys also have a grove of Valencia and Hamlin oranges and Sunburst tangerines that needs regular care. The Murphy citrus trees looked mostly green and healthy today as Del checked them. He said that the decision 30 years ago to use the Cleo rootstock has proven very fortunate. Recent observation has shown it to be more resilient against the devastating citrus disease HLB, or greening. He's had to spray copper recently to treat some canker. "This grove really is the reason all our families could be here," said Del. Del said he, Janice and Erin can and do share all of the day-to-day responsibilities, but Del focuses more heavily on the groves while Janice, a former schoolteacher, is more involved in managing the cattle herd. Erin works part-time on the family ranch and part-time as a livestock market clerk. Joy, 80, still rides her horse regularly and helps gather and work the cattle. Glenn, 84, is also actively involved in the business, getting around on his "horse" as Del called it - a rugged green and yellow four-wheeler. The way they see it, they'll be retired when they are laid in the ground, Del said. The family also regularly attends and serves in their church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.