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Rural Florida's players and their projects

Seventy years ago, Henry Moyle, a Salt Lake City-born apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, proposed that the Mormon church establish a large cattle ranch in Florida. Traditionally, church leaders have viewed farms both as a safe investment for their savings and as a source of food. Moyle, once a cattleman, was convinced that warm, wet Florida would be ideal for cattle ranching because it was easy to grow grass.

In 1950, the church struck a deal with a timber company to buy 50,000 acres covered in stumps, swamps and palmettos. Within two years, the church’s holdings grew to more than 220,000 acres, and it moved a handful of ranching families from out west to live and work on the property. The church named the ranch Deseret — a word taken from the Book of Mormon that means “honeybee” — and expanded it over time by buying smaller parcels (though Lockheed Martin still owns and operates a large testing range in the middle of it all).

The ranch now encompasses approximately 295,000 acres in Osceola, Orange and Brevard counties — roughly four times the land area of the city of Orlando. One of the largest calf-cow operations in the United States, Deseret maintains a herd of around 45,000 calf-producing beef cattle and a sophisticated breeding operation geared to optimize both beef quality and the animals’ suitability for the Florida climate.

Most of the ranch’s 80 employees — including cowboys, tractor mechanics, accountants and biologists — live in small pockets of homes scattered around the ranch. Deseret has its own 2,000-seat rodeo grounds and gives each cowboy the opportunity to earn a horse.

“In the past, in a lot of ways, we just focused on our ag operations and just didn’t worry about what was going on” in the areas surrounding the ranch,” says Erik Jacobsen, the ranch’s top executive.

But the ranch couldn’t escape the sprawl around it that edged ever closer. About 35 years ago, Progress Energy built a set of mammoth transmission lines through the heart of the ranch. Then the city of Cocoa condemned some of the ranch’s land for a series of wells and a water-treatment plant. More recently, the ranch says, Brevard County claimed a 3,000-acre parcel of productive ranch land for a landfill.

Jacobsen says church and ranch leaders concluded that others would continue to nibble at Deseret’s borders unless they did something themselves. In the mid-2000s, Deseret executives began taking on a higher profile, building relationships with local politicians and business leaders and helping to shape growth-management and infrastructure-planning decisions.

Joe Wallace
“You’ve got two entities, even though one is a church and one is Tavistock, that are both privately held. They don’t have to answer to shareholders. They can work together privately, behind the scenes.” — Joe Wallace, executive director of the Central Florida Research Park

The result was a pair of sector plans. The first, completed in 2011 and called the Northeast District, covers about 19,000 acres at the northwestern edge of the range, closest to metro Orlando’s sprawl. Deseret packaged that with another 5,000 acres it owns in Orange County and contracted with Tavistock to buy, plan and develop it.

The second plan was far larger. Completed in 2015 and called the North Ranch sector plan, it is a long-term development framework for 133,000 acres of Deseret land in Osceola County, with building projected to begin in 2040 and continue until 2080. A little more than half of the acreage will be used for mixed-use development; 29% will be put into conservation, 13% will remain in agriculture and 5% will be set aside for reservoirs. The population projections envision 355,000 residents by 2060 — and 493,000 by 2080.

Partly because of its isolation and lack of political visibility, Deseret Ranch developed a reputation in central Florida for acting somewhat secretively. Joe Wallace, executive director of the Central Florida Research Park next to the University of Central Florida, says he spent more than a year discussing a potential new research park with church and ranch officials after they had purchased the east Orlando industrial park. But the two sides couldn’t work out an agreement, in part because a public authority runs the research park.

Wallace says the ranch’s desire for confidentiality makes it a good fit with Tavistock. “You’ve got two entities, even though one is a church and one is Tavistock, that are both privately held. They don’t have to answer to shareholders, they don’t have to fill out a 10-k for the SEC. They can work together privately, behind the scenes,” Wallace says.

Deseret has even more land it could develop — another 70,000 acres in Orange County for which it has not yet done any public long-range planning. Orange County leaders have so far rebuffed Deseret’s requests to devise a plan, but Jacobsen says the ranch would still like to get something into place. (The rest of Deseret’s land is near the St. Johns River in Brevard County, which the ranch says is too valuable as farmland to develop, or much further south in Osceola County, where it remains very remote.)

“If Orange County is amenable to it in the future, we would certainly be interested,” Jacobsen says.

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