Cattle rancher, citrus grower and real estate investor C. Dennis Carlton has made a big impact in the city of Tampa and nearby parts of Florida. As result of his success, he is the Florida state winner of the 2014 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award.
A rancher for 40 years, his farming interests include more than 35,000 acres, of which 30,082 acres are rented and some 5,368 acres are owned.
Carlton joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 14 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
His operation includes two large ranches. Carlton & Carlton Ranch has cattle in five different counties, and Audubon Ranch has cattle in two counties. His pastures cover 34,680 acres spread out through six counties. He produces irrigated citrus on 359 acres yielding 338 boxes of fruit per acre last year. He also leases out 183 acres of irrigated strawberries.
His citrus fruit is processed for juice and most is marketed through Florida’s Natural Growers, a cooperative. He markets cattle several ways. He sends calves to New Mexico to be raised on grass. He ships most of his calves during the early fall. He either retains ownership through finishing, or he places them in the Producers Equity Participation (PEP) program. PEP is available to select ranches, and participants share in gains or losses through the finishing phase. Double vaccination produces healthy calves and helps qualify his cattle for PEP.
In the summer, most of his calves are sent to Great Plains Feed Yard under the PEP program. Lightweight calves are sent in the fall to Mississippi, the Texas Panhandle or North Florida where they are grazed.
He has planted hundreds of oak trees to provide pasture shade. He is replacing bahiagrass with Jiggs bermudagrass. Jiggs is easy to establish and grows well under Florida conditions. He’s also exploring center pivot irrigation. “This is unusual for our part of Florida,” he explains. “Our first pivot is being installed to water our winter annuals. If this proves to be cost effective, we can expand the pivots to other locations using existing wells.”
In past years, he owned a hauling company to deliver wet citrus pulp to feed to his cattle and to other beef customers. He closed this business when the juice plant closed down. So he refocused his winter feeding program and now relies on hay, fortified molasses, dry feed, along with some produce crops, cull potatoes, cabbage and corn husks.
Citrus has been a good crop over the years, but it has been challenging, with freezes during the 1980’s, replanting during the 1990’s, low prices after the year 2000, then a disease called citrus canker, followed by a new disease called greening. Greening may lead to its demise as a major agricultural enterprise in Florida.
As a result, Carlton converted some of his citrus land to irrigated strawberries leased to a California grower. Earlier this year, he hosted Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Krysta Harden to discuss the threat of greening to Florida citrus.
Carlton protects the environment. He converted 1,200 acres of phosphate-mined land to productive pastures and wetlands. For the strawberries, he developed a system to use lake water to spray over the berry plants to prevent freeze damage. He says this conserves water by keeping limited groundwater supplies from being used for freeze protection.
Carlton constantly looks to expand his cattle business. In 2013, he expanded the Audubon Ranch by leasing an additional 2,000 acres near Dade City, Fla.
The son of a doctor, Carlton was raised in Tampa. As a child, he raised rabbits and chickens and grew corn in his backyard. He sold the rabbits to local hospitals for use in pregnancy tests. His cousin Doyle Carlton was a rancher, state senator and a mentor. Dennis started farming on his own by renting 55 acres and buying 19 cows in 1974, the same year he started in real estate. He now runs Mid-State Realty Company, Inc., from his Tampa office. Revenue generated from his real estate brokerage and land sales allowed his agricultural operations to expand.
One of his hobbies involves his family in showing and competing with Appaloosas at horse events. “I wanted to grow up to be a cowboy,” says Carlton. “A good day for me is riding my horse and moving cattle.”
“We have built a large operation,” he says. “The Lord blessed us and helped us create family roots. We all love the outdoors. The land we own and work allows us to live close by, to work together and to worship together.”
Off-farm leadership, involvement
Carlton has been active in Hillsborough County Farm Bureau board and served as president. He served on a Hillsborough County environmental advisory board, the Hillsborough County Agricultural Task Force, the Greenways Task Force and the Agricultural Economic Development Council. He also served on Hillsborough County’s Soil & Water Conservation District board.
He was a founding member of Valrico State Bank, and serves as a director on both the CenterState Bank and Farm Credit of Central Florida boards.
Each year, he hosts the Fellowship of Christian Athletes for a weekend fellowship and hunting retreat.
On the state level, he has been a member of Farm Bureau beef and citrus advisory boards, and has represented Farm Bureau in meetings with state legislators.
Carlton and his wife Alice are active in First Freewill Baptist Church in Seffner, Fla. Carlton is a trustee at the church. Alice is involved each year when the Carltons host a Sunrise Easter Service. Alice has also been involved with the Junior League of Tampa. Dennis and Alice donate a steer each year to youth exhibiting at the Florida State Fair.
He has also worked with attorneys and financial planners on estate planning to pass along the farm to their children. Their oldest daughter Marjorie died in September of last year. Their daughter Melissa is married to Pat Thomas who manages Audubon Ranch for Carlton. Melissa spends much of her time as a church and school volunteer. Their son Dennis, Jr., manages Carlton & Carlton Ranches. Dennis, Jr. and Pat also take part in Ranch Rodeo and have represented Florida in the finals in Amarillo, Tex.
Joshua Craft, director of the Field Services Division at Florida Farm Bureau, is the state coordinator of the Farmer of the Year awards. Carlton was nominated for the award by Ron Wetherington, a retired farmer who serves with Carlton on the Farm Credit board. Wetherington says, “Dennis is the go-to person in dealing with local politicians. He does a super job as a producer and in serving our community.”
As the Florida state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Carlton will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative, the choice of either $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed or a $500 donation to a designated charity from Dow AgroSciences, and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash award that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate and a Heritage gun safe from the Southern States cooperative, the choice of either another $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed or a second $500 donation to a designated charity from Dow AgroSciences, and a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
Florida's past winners
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 25th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $964,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from Florida include: Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1990; Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1991; Wayne Wiggins of Plant City, 1992; Leroy Baldwin of Ocala, 1993; Billy Long of Apopka, 1994; Richard Barber of Ocala, 1995; Al Bellotto of Lakeland, 1996; Rex Clonts of Apopka, 1997; John Hoblick of DeLeon Springs, 1998; Doug Holmberg of Valrico, 1999; Damon Deas of Jennings, 2000; Gene Batson of Mount Dora, 2001; William Putnam of Alturas, 2002; Sonny Williamson of Okeechobee, 2003; Dale Sauls of Anthony, 2004; Louis “Red” Larson of Okeechobee, 2005; Damon Deas of Jennings, 2006; Alto “Bud” Adams of Ft. Pierce, 2007; Randy Strode of Longwood, 2008; Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, 2009; John Hundley of North Palm Beach, 2010; Ron St. John of Trenton, 2011; Dale McClellan of Thonotosassa, 2012; and John Scott Long of Palm City, 2013.
Florida has had seven overall winners: Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1991; Leroy Baldwin of Ocala, 1993; Rex Clonts of Apopka, 1997; Doug Holmberg of Valrico, 1999; Louis “Red” Larson of Okeechobee, 2005; Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, 2009; and Dale McClellan of Thonotosassa, 2012.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit Carlton’s farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 4-8. The judges for this year farmer Brian Kirksey of Amity, Ark., who was the overall winner in 2008, John Woodruff, retired University of Georgia Extension agronomist from Tifton, Ga., who specialized in soybeans for many years, and Clark Garland, longtime University of Tennessee Extension ag economist of Maryville, Tenn.