MANATEE -- The Manatee Farm City Week committee is tipping its hat to Florida's 500-year history this month by including an East Manatee stop at Strickland Ranch, home to a herd of Cracker Cattle.
The cows are descended from the long-horn Andulusian cattle introduced into Florida by the Spanish as early as 1521, historians say.
Over the decades and centuries, some of the cattle escaped into the wild and were able to adapt and thrive in an inhospitable habitat of scrub
and palmetto, extreme heat and biting insects.
While the Cracker Cow was able to survive on its own in the wild, its existence was threatened by development and the emergence of new, larger breeds.
For sentimental reasons, and out of respect for the history of the cattle business, rancher Renee Strickland said she wanted a herd of her own to help preserve the bloodline.
What sets the Cracker Cow apart from modern cattle is its leaner, smaller body, head shape and long horns.
Cracker cows are closely related to the famed Texas longhorn, descended from Corriente cattle, Strickland said.
The tough, self reliant cracker cow helped feed Spanish garrisons and later pioneer communities, while also becoming a mainstay of Native American communities.
"In early Florida, Europeans, Americans, and Indians stole cattle from each other," according to the book "Florida Cattle Ranching," published by the Florida Cattlemen's Foundation. "Rustling became particularly widespread by the second half of the 18th Century, and was one of the elements that led to the Seminole Wars."
It is ironic, notes Strickland, that Florida's first cowboys were Indians.
Today, Strickland Ranch hosts a herd of 46 on 700 acres of improved pasture, as well as on palmetto land.
Strickland is particularly happy with a new bull she recently purchased to help improve the bloodline of her herd.
Recently, she took a visitor to a pasture where the Cracker herd was located, and fed them several large bags of pellets.
She moved confidently, but carefully through the herd.
"They are more gentle natured than my Brangus, but they have horns and know how to use them," Strickland said.
This will mark the first time Strickland Ranch has been included on the farm tour.
"I am all for it. We need to educate the urban population about where their food comes from," she said.
While Strickland, and her husband Jim, raise cattle for the domestic market, she also works as an international broker. She has brokered deals to send cattle to Oman, Guyana, Costa Rica, Honduras, Belize and elsewhere
Included on this year's Farm Tour, set for Nov. 22, in recognition of its historical significance is Bell Fish House in Cortez. For centuries before the arrival of European settlers, native people thrived in part by collecting the bounty of the sea. Evidence remains in the form of shell middens on Snead Island and elsewhere in Florida.
"Florida's agricultural history began when the first Paleo-Indian cultures migrated into Florida following herds and gathering food sources. Naturally, fish, shellfish and wildlife comprised most of the diet of early inhabitants," according to the Florida Department of Agriculture web site. "Agricultural crops were first cultivated around 500 AD with corn, squash, cucumbers and beans becoming an important food source."
Other stops on the farm tour include McClure Ranch, Manatee Floral, and FISH Preserve.
The salute to Florida history, "Viva Florida - 500 Years of Agriculture," is also the theme of the speech and essay contests, said Betty Glassburn, long-time Farm City Week committee member.
Farm City Week is set for Nov. 14-22 and includes events for children, award of the Agriculturist of the Year, always a closely held secret; induction of the newest member of the Manatee Agriculture Hall of Fame, the late J. T. Reeder, and more.
For tickets for the farm tour, call Veronica at 941-722-4524. Cost is $45 and includes bus transportation, lunch and snacks.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.