Florida is known for its beaches, and the state and Mickey Mouse are often viewed as one and the same. But before there was Disney World, or South Beach, Florida was known for something else. It’s sprawling farms, citrus groves and ranches. Today, agriculture remains one of the state’s main economic drivers. And once a decade a group of gather to honor the state’s earliest commodity: cattle.
The Florida Agriculture Museum in Palm Coast is like going back a hundred years. Wooden buildings with fading paint are laid out across the property’s dirt paths. Today lining the sides of a large barn are saddles, including one that’s a deep tan, with burnished, intricate designs carved into the leather.
That saddle costs about $3,000. The seller is Doyle Conner Jr. He’s a sixth generation Floridian and his family has been in the cattle business for more than a century. His father, Doyle Conner Sr. was state agriculture commissioner from 1961-1991.
Today, is a riding day. And hundreds of people have parked along the museum grounds with their horse trailers, preparing to ride out into more than 600 acres of tall grasses, pine and palm trees and dirt-sand paths. The ride is meant to be fun, but it’s also reminiscent of the labor-intensive work that goes into herding, caring for, raising and working with Florida cattle.
“The first cows, first horses to set foot in Florida landed in Port Charlotte, in 1521," Conner says.
The industry is nearly 500 years old. At one time, Florida ranked among the top cattle and beef exporters in the U.S. Today, it’s a lot smaller. Its ranked 10th in the U.S. for beef cows, and is still worth more than $1.5 billion to the state.
“We make our living," says Imogene Yarborough. Her family has been working in cattle for generations.
"We raise calves, we have what’s referred to as a cow-calf operation.”
Florida is considered the nation’s cow nursery. Those cows are eventually shipped to other states and counties where they are raised for milk or beef.
Today’s reunion ride doesn’t feature cows. But there are plenty of horses, along with their owners. Leading the group is trail boss Joyce Chartier, who has been in business renting and training horses for more than 20 years. She says raising and caring for horses is a lifestyle choice. One that not everyone is cut out for. It’s expensive. There’s are hitches to move. Vet bills for when they get sick. Fencing to keep them safe. Food. Shelter.
“I tell people yeah the stock market…and all my stock has four legs. I need to get a new horse and name him 401K. Cause otherwise, that will never happen," she laughs.
Chartier says horses can teach life lessons—how to work. How to be respectful. How to be mindful. And if the rides are good, and so too are the people who ride.
“They’re such quality, salt of the earth. Genuine and real. You ask them for help, and they help you. You ask them for something, and they follow through on what they say they’ll do. And that’s such a rare commodity," she says.
Chartier says experiences like the reunion drive, only strengthen those bonds, uniting people with a love of Florida’s historical agricultural roots.