Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture Wilton Simpson and rancher Jim Strickland spoke to a packed house at Horse Farms Forever’s Spring Speaker Series Event held at Golden Ocala on April 24. Photos by Sean Dowie Photography

Wilton Simpson, Commissioner of Agriculture, Inspires at Spring Speaker Series

Wilton Simpson, Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture gave an inspiring speech at Horse Farms Forever’s third annual Spring Speaker Series event held on Wednesday, April 24 at Golden Ocala. Jim Strickland, legendary Florida cowboy and rancher, also spoke passionately about his love of ranching at the event.

Over 125 guests joined us to celebrate Farmland Preservation Month and to create more awareness about conservation programs to promote agriculture and protect farms. Our Presenting Sponsor was Lugano Diamonds and our Program Sponsor was Tasha Osbourne of Premier Sotheby’s International Realty. Many thanks for their generous support!

Wilton Simpson, Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture, has been a champion of agriculture since his election to the Florida Senate in 2012. He spoke about securing the future of farming in the state of Florida by protecting farms and ranches through the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program with conservation easements.

Food is National Security

Commissioner Simpson is a fifth-generation Floridian and he has been a champion of agriculture since his election to the Florida Senate in 2012, where he served for 10 years. He spoke about securing the future of farming in the state of Florida, with programs such as the updated Right to Farm Act, the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program to help protect agricultural land from urban sprawl, the Florida Wildlife Corridor, and the Fresh from Florida program to encourage Florida-grown food.

The most important issue facing agriculture, he said, is to define food and agriculture as a national security issue. 

“We think about oil as a national security issue and our country has strategic supplies of oil just in case there’s a major disruption somewhere in the world,” he said. “But, imagine one week of no food in the grocery stores, or no food for just seven days. There would be total chaos in this country. Now imagine 30 days of no food in the stores and there would be people starving.”

Simpson also said that agriculture is the number-two driver of Florida’s economy, but during the pandemic because tourism was limited, agriculture became the number-one driver of the economy. 

“Agriculture has more than a $130 billion economic impact across our state while providing 2.2 million jobs and local sources of food,” he said.

Rural and Family Lands Protection Program

As a lifelong farmer, who grew up working on his family’s large-scale egg farm, he understands the development pressure that landowners face. He has championed the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFLPP) that protects important agricultural lands through the acquisition of permanent agricultural land conservation easements. 

He successfully secured $300 million in funding for the RFLPP the 2022-2023 fiscal year and he has requested an additional $300 million in funding for the 2024 fiscal year. 

Florida Wildlife Corridor

In 2021, Commissioner Simpson also championed the successful passage of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, which helps protect the Florida Wildlife Corridor. The Corridor stretches over 18 million acres and generates more than $30 billion in revenue annually and stimulates roughly 100,000 jobs in the state of Florida. Since 2021, more than 160,000 acres have been approved for protection through the RFLPP and the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act. 

He has also supported several agriculture-focused policies in the Florida Senate, including reducing the tax burden on farmers by strengthening Florida’s greenbelt laws and expanding Agritourism throughout Florida.

After the Spring Speaker Series, Wilton Simpson posted on his personal Facebook page, stating:

“Great to be in Ocala last night with my friend Jim Strickland and Horse Farms Forever. They’re working to conserve horse farms to preserve natural pasture land. The horse industry defines so much of the areas character and I’m grateful for the work being done to protect it.” 



Bernie Little, HFF Founder and President, Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, CEO, Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation, Traci Deen, Esq., President and CEO of Conservation Florida, Sara Powell Fennessy, HFF Executive Director, Wilton Simpson, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture, Jonathon Rees, Firm Member, Smith, Bryan & Myers

Craig Curry, Marion County Commissioner, Mary Jane Hunt, HFF Founder and Sara Powell Fennessy, HFF Executive Director

Michelle Stone, Marion County Commissioner (center) with Lonny Powell- CEO Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association and Wilton Simpson, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture

Tasha and Michael Osbourne – Many thanks to our Presenting Sponsor Lugano Diamonds and to our Program Sponsor Tasha Osbourne of Premier Sotheby’s International Realty for their generous support!

Rubbish and Debrie, mascots for Marion County’s No Horsin’ Around Campaign to help prevent litter.  

Mary Jane Hunt, Director of the Saint Bernard Foundation, presents gifts of $25,000 each to Sam Smidt, Director of Land Use and Protection Research for the American Farmland Trust, Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, CEO, Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation, (standing with Wilton Simpson and Sara Fennessy), and Traci Deen, Esq., President and CEO of Conservation Florida

Jim Strickland and John S. Rudnianyn, CCIM, ALC. International Property Services Corp

Jason Reynolds, Executive Director, Florida Agriculture Center and Horse Park and Sara Powell Fennessy, HFF Executive Director

Jim Strickland, legendary Florida rancher spoke passionately about the importance of protecting working cattle ranches.

Cattle and Conservation Cowboy – Jim Strickland

Jim Strickland is the Owner of Strickland Ranch and Managing Partner of Blackbeard’s Ranch a 4,530-acre cattle ranch near Myakka River State Park. He has six decades of ranching experience and comes from a family that has been ranching in Florida since 1860. When his father died in the 1970’s, Jim took over the family cattle operations at the age of 17, primarily leasing land for cattle. 

“I’ve been ranching for 60 years and this is all I’ve ever wanted to do,” said Strickland. “There’s no illustrious history about Strickland Ranch, nor huge financial gains; what there is a love for the woods, cattle and Florida. I’ve been blessed to do what I love.”

His passion for cattle and conservation began at a young age, as he witnessed the development pressure first-hand and had to move his cattle out of many leased pastures and native ranges when they converted to housing developments. 

Jim is a strong advocate for Florida agriculture and land conservation. He is the Vice-Chairman of the Florida Conservation Group, a science-based organization that facilitated the protection of over 35,000 acres of ranches with conservation easements in 2023 and are currently working to protect another 40,000 acres in 2024.

“A ranch is as close to pristine wilderness as you’ll get. How do we compensate ranchers to maintain their land, stay in business and not sell to developers? We have to be able to tell the story of what dirt is worth – not from the standpoint of development rights – but what is the land worth to society, the 22 million people who live in Florida, who depend on that land to filter water, protect wetlands, store carbon, and provide animal habitat,” said Strickland. 

Everglades to Gulf Conservation Area

The Florida Conservation Group worked in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to establish a new 4 million-acre Conservation Area in southwest Florida as the Everglades to Gulf Conservation Area, which will allow USFWS to work with landowners to protect agricultural land with conservation easements.

He was also instrumental in protecting nearly 1,500 acres of Blackbeard’s Ranch with a conservation easement.

Jim has served as President of the Florida Cattleman’s Association, Past Chairman of the Florida Cattleman’s Foundation, and Chairman of the National Cattleman’s Beef Association PAC, the Florida Agriculture Center and Horse Park and is Co-Chair of the Florida Climate Smart Agriculture Work Group.

Jim was named Audubon Florida’s Sustainable Rancher of the year in 2019 and recognized as one of Florida Trend’s 500 Most Influential Business Leaders for 2018 and 2019.

George Isaacs, General Manager, Bridlewood Farm and HFF Director, Sara Powell Fennessy, HFF Executive Director, Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, CEO, Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation, Wilton Simpson, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture, Mary Jane Hunt, HFF Founder, Jim Strickland, Florida rancher, Busy Shires, HFF Director of Conservation, Bernie Little, HFF Founder and President

Busy Shires, Director of Conservation, Horse Farms Forever high fives Jim Strickland

Nancy DiMaggio, Volunteer, Horse Farms Forever

Heather Traynham Wright, Ann Louise Drake, Holland and Barbara Drake

Debbie and Jorge Garcia-Bengochea from Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses and HFF Founder Mary Jane Hunt

Thank You To Our Sponsors!

It is the vision and mission of Horse Farms Forever to inspire conservation of horse farms through education, awareness and idea exchange so as to preserve natural pasture land focusing on horses and their habitats, to protect soil and water on which they depend, and minimize land use conflicts
in Marion County, Florida.

We are watchful of government and others to preserve and protect horse farms and farmland for future generations - especially in the Farmland Preservation Area. We are neither anti-growth nor anti-development; we encourage urban growth to remain inside the Urban Growth Boundary.

Horse Farms Forever® is a Florida not-for-profit corporation registered with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services as a charitable organization and approved as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) corporation by the Internal Revenue Service. Horse Farms Forever® does not have a political mission. Our status as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization does not allow us to participate or intervene in political activities. The organization will neither advocate on behalf of political candidates nor advocate for the passage of legislation.