HFF Staff (left to right) Michelle Grald, Sara Powell-Fennessy, Busy Shires Byerly, and Board President, Bernard Little. Photos by Dillon Video.

The horse is at the heart of Ocala/Marion County.

Horses and the love for the scenic beauty of Marion County brought a diverse group of large and small landowners, developers, realtors and elected officials – over 100 people – to Horse Farms Forever’s first Conservation Summit on November 19 at Golden Ocala. 

The purpose of the Summit was to inspire preservation of the horse farms and agricultural lands that are fundamental to Marion County’s global brand as the Horse Capital of the World®.

Our speakers discussed practical ways to preserve farmland that benefit landowners and also made several suggestions on how to balance economic development and growth while retaining the sense of place that the iconic horse farms and agricultural lands bring to the area.

Sara Powell-Fennessy, Horse Farms Forever’s Director of Community Affairs, led off the meeting by reminding us all that Ocala/Marion County is growing, and that growth is good, but unchecked sprawl threatens what makes this area so special – its open spaces and beautiful places.

“The county’s Farmland Preservation Area must be respected and protected. With your support, we can have a seat at the table advocating for the protection of horse farms and the Farmland Preservation Area in order to ensure our global brand as Horse Capital of the World® remains for future generations,” said Powell-Fennessy.

We are thrilled to announce that Sara Powell-Fennessy will assume the role of Executive Director for Horse Farms Forever, starting in January, 2021. Please join us in congratulating her for this well-deserved promotion.

Busy Shires Byerly, our Director of Conservation Strategies, said one of the goals of the Summit was to inspire community leaders and to be the catalyst for developing some new tools in the county’s comprehensive plan to protect the Farmland Preservation Area.

Shires-Byerly pointed out that: “There are about 80,000 horses and over 1,200 horse farms in Marion County… And preserving these farms not only ensures that the character and culture of this special place remains, but it protects a thriving horse industry, which contributes over $2.6 billion to the economy and employs over 20,000 people. So this is also about protecting a way of life and jobs.”

Riley Rowe, Marion County’s first Florida State President of the Future Farmers of America, introduced our Guest Speaker, Adam Putnam, former Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and CEO of Ducks Unlimited. 

Commissioner Putnam joined us via Zoom with an inspirational talk from his home office. He described the excellent work that Ducks Unlimited is doing nationwide to preserve land for agriculture and recreation, including a 25,000-acre conservation easement just established in the Everglades headwaters. He also pointed out that there has been a resurgence in outdoor recreation, with hopes that this would logically progress into a national interest in land conservation.

Commissioner Putnam also touched on the tools of conservation for farmers, particularly easements. He encouraged the elected officials in the room to consider how the comprehensive plan can be amended to concentrate growth in the urban areas while preserving the County’s iconic farms. Putnam also encouraged us as citizens of Marion County to continually be brainstorming ways to involve our urban residents in farm life, so that everyone comes to appreciate the character and culture created by horses and horse farms.

Billy Van Pelt of the American Farmland Trust (AFT) was the keynote speaker for the Summit. He presented AFT’s State of the States report for Florida. This ambitious project mapped the soils throughout the United States and identified the most valuable and rare soils in every state. This is a critical tool for each state and the country as a whole to use as they plan for the future of agriculture.

Van Pelt showed the soil maps for Florida, which clearly illuminated Marion County’s challenges. The valuable soils for farming are mostly located in the designated Farmland Preservation Area established in 2005, but sprawl is expanding beyond the urban boundary. Low-density residential sprawl is of special concern, according to Van Pelt. This type of development costs more to Marion County than it pays in taxes. He recommended that the County consider amending the Comprehensive Plan in the Farmland Preservation Area for larger lot sizes, and also warned of the dangers of a comprehensive plan that can be amended with every developer’s request.

Van Pelt is located in Kentucky, and has a long history working with the City of Lexington, which has done an impressive job in preserving their horse culture and farmland through community planning and conservation easements. He freely shared examples, ideas and advice from that experience. He acknowledged that Ocala is indeed the Horse Capital of the World®, and as such, we have an advantage in obtaining broad community support for farmland preservation.

“Your farmland is your ‘ocean.’ It is the thing that makes Ocala a unique destination. It is also your factory floor, where a quarter of your economic activity takes place,” Van Pelt observed.

Following the keynote speech, a lively question and answer session ensued. The panel answered questions about the nuts and bolts of conservation easements, how to involve the County in rural management planning, how to inspire the next generation, and Horse Farms Forever’s next steps.

Some of Horse Farms Forever’s next steps include:

  1. A conservation easement outreach project with our land trust partner – Alachua Conservation Trust;
  2. A Quality of Life survey on a countywide basis with local partners;
  3. A follow up workshop in the spring of 2021 about Conservation Easements, just for landowners.
  4. Meeting with elected officials to discuss how to add some new tools in the county’s comprehensive plan to protect the Farmland Preservation Area.
  5. Setting a goal for permanent farmland conservation in the Farmland Preservation Area, as Van Pelt suggested.

The Summit concluded with Ms. Fennessy thanking our sponsors for making this inspiring event possible. “By being here, you are the Forever in Horse Farms Forever,” she said. 

The groundswell of support from the audience members to help protect horse farms and farmland in Marion County was encouraging!

We look forward to continuing the conversation with community leaders and keeping our members up to date on the progress of the next steps.

Always Watching

We work hard to keep you informed, and to represent our members' interests in preserving our horse farms, farmland and the unique character and culture of Marion County's 193,000 acre Farmland Preservation Area.

Join the herd. Every voice matters.

Growing up in Marion county, you hear a lot about the equine industry and how important it is. The older I got, the more I realized this is true. The horse industry in Marion County accounts for 2.6 billion dollars, not to mention the thousands of acres of land dedicated to caring for these animals. I am so proud to have grown up in a community that takes rural land preservation seriously and knows the value of agriculture.

Riley Rowe

Florida President, Future Farmers of America

Pledge in Honor of Cathy D. Perry

Horse Farms Forever announced a generous pledge of $100,000 made by Brandon and Diannah Perry in honor of Brandon’s mother, Cathy D. Perry. 

The community should establish a goal for permanent farmland conservation. It can’t be a win-lose for the community and for business. It’s a win-win, and it’s a balance – conserving enough farmland to retain your horse industry, your global brand, and your quality of life. That goal should be embedded in your comprehensive plan.

Billy Van Pelt II

Sr. Director of External Relations, American Farmland Trust

Presentation of the Robert N. Clay Conservation Award

Ken Haddad of the Equestrian Land Conservation Resource, presented the Robert N. Clay Conservation Award to Horse Farms Forever President, Bernard Little.

The Award will be proudly displayed in the trophy museum at the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association (FTBOA) headquarters in Ocala. 

Farmers are generally land rich and cash poor, which makes the tax benefits of conservation easements particularly appealing. In terms of estate planning, easements have been the salvation of many a family farm.

Adam Putnam

CEO, Ducks Unlimited