Only an hour or so away from us is the world of Old Florida. Wes Williamson talks about life on the ranch.
Today, a cool wind from the far east coast whips across the WCC Ranch, riffling the leaves of ancient live oaks, dappling the sunlight on a sandy shell road that used to be the railbed for the Florida East Coast Railroad 90 years ago when part of this land was taken up by turpentine camps.
Wes Williamson owns the Williamson Cattle Company now, a sprawling cattle ranch six miles north of Okeechobee that his grandfather started in the 1940s when he managed to buy up thousands of acres from the government that had been used for shared cattle grazing. His mother was a descendent of the Raulersons, a founding family out here, and his family has been in ranching for four generations now. Williamson, 63, is reluctant to share the exact size of the ranch (he doesn’t like to be braggy), but he did allow this inference:
“A rancher from Texas and a rancher from Florida were talking one day about their respective ranches. The boastful Texan said he could get in his truck at daylight, and by dark he still would not have seen his entire ranch. The Florida cattleman said, ‘Yeah, I used to have a truck like that.’”
Williamson is one of several ranchers with massive land holdings in the region; of the 15 largest cattle ranches in the United States, seven of them are within 80 miles of here.
“The interior part of Florida is extremely good grass-growing country; it is extremely good for the wildlife. It’s really good for the environment. You’ve got a lot of very big cattle ranches here in terms of number of head of cattle,“ he says.
The ranch raises calves to ship to feedlots; there are cowboys and working dogs, endless pastures and scrubland, wetlands, citrus groves, sandhill cranes and bald eagles. It is a world away from the coast and the shimmering megalopolis that starts in West Palm and ends in Miami.
It is Florida as it once was.
Still, Williamson admits that cattle ranching is nothing like the movies; it is marginally profitable and depends on supply and demand, year to year. And then there are the natural disasters, like back-to-back hurricanes.
“We’ve had rough economic times. We’ve had the disease that affects citrus, that made it become not profitable. Two of the worst hurricanes of my life happened 21 days apart in 2004. Frances and Jeanne came straight in from the east coast, and blew most of our citrus crop to the ground. We were able to go through that. You go to work then. Life is not defined by ‘poor me, I got hit by this.’ It’s how you respond to things. You get up and go to work.”
And part of that work strategy has always been about branching out.
“Early on, whenever he had any money left over, granddad planted citrus,” he recalls. “Dad increased the citrus, I increased the citrus, then in the 1970s we were actually looking for someplace else to diversify.
“The thing I’ve learned is to look for other ways [to make money] rather than doing the same thing over and over again. You want to get good at what you are doing. You not only want to be the most efficient, but you also want to have large volumes to sell. That’s what it makes it work. … My dad still says to me today, ‘You’ve always got to be looking for something else.’”
Over the years, the company has bought a place in Alabama to raise grain and soybeans, and entered the catfish business. It also bought another ranch in West Texas for cattle and hunting from the proceeds of a conservation easement it sold to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s wetlands reserve program for use as wetlands and water retention.
“We still own the land, but they now own the development rights and the rights to return it to its original wetlands characteristics. … It retains a considerable amount of water, portions of it are flooded year-round, others during the rainy season—it allows a lot of water from uplands and other properties to come in and go into that wetland area and settle out. It’s an opportunity for nutrients to settle out and maybe not go downstream later on.”
With every innovation, the ranch buys itself a foothold on the future—a future Williamson says his children are eager to help build, just the way three generations before them have. There is something in the ranching way of life that has carried through the family over time, and still shapes who Wes Williamson is, and how he lives on the land.
“I have no idea why God has blessed me and my family so much on this earth. But I’m thankful for it. I have a responsibility to take care of it on the environmental side, a responsibility to take care of it in the economical side. And a responsibility not to lose it, to pass it on to my children.
“It’s just a way of life in our family. … It is just something that I always loved, and I have never lost that passion for it. It’s still there today.”