LAKEWOOD RANCH -- A timber plantation once owned by Wisconsin natives John Schroeder and then the Uihlein family, who turned it into a successful agribusiness, is still thriving among all the residential and commercial development at Lakewood Ranch.
Today, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Farms, spanning 31,000 acres of the master-planned community between Manatee and Sarasota counties, maintains and preserves the legacy of its founders. The timber operation is still there as well as cattle ranching, citrus and vegetable farms, shell mining and a premium turfgrass business.
The ranch is holding its own, said President Mac Carraway, as the economy bounces back from the recession, and the developer of Lakewood Ranch, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc., which also owns the farms, continues to develop land and build homes and space for commercial, office and medical use. Carraway, who came to the farm 10 years ago with a background in finance and agricultural operations, said the symbiotic relationship between the two entities is good for business.
"The turf and trees are very much needed for all the development at Lakewood Ranch, and then, we found out that other people wanted these things, so it's grown into a stand-alone business," Carraway said at farm headquarters in northeastern Lakewood Ranch along Lorraine Road.
The 20 different types of trees grown on the farm adorn many of the homes and the premium turfgrass varieties SMR Farms markets are widely used for community lawns, golf courses, recreational centers, the Sarasota Polo Club and the Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch.
Turfgrass has become such a big draw SMR Farms is now selling it to distributors in the Caribbean is lands of Trinidad and Tobago, where it's not available. These islands want and need high-performance sports grass for professional soccer and cricket fields.
The turf is sent in small grass plugs via boat, ship or plane and, in keeping with offshore regulations, must be washed and refrigerated to avoid transporting soil-borne pathogens.
SMR's first international turfgrass sale occurred four years ago for a high-end tropical resort.
"We shipped a very premium turf called Empire Zoysia grass to an ocean resort on the Turks and Caicos island, and it was used all around the resort," said Gary Bradshaw, who heads the farm turfgrass production and has been in the business for 37 years.
Bradshaw said Asian markets such as China, Vietnam and Japan need high-end grass for their golf courses, but it's a hard market to break into and costlier to ship via plane. So they continue to set their sights closer to home, establishing a satellite farm in Kissimmee to get closer to the Orlando market and providing all the turf for Triple-A baseball teams in areas such as Louisiana for the New York Mets' farm team, the New Orleans Zephyrs.
"The international golf economy dried up during the recession, but now it's coming back, and we are shipping turf and containerized trees all across Florida mostly, because the costs are cheaper, and to Louisiana and Texas, where there are big projects that need landscaping," Carraway said.
Under Carraway's direction, SMR Farms evolved and positioned itself as a more focused and quality-oriented operation.
Almost half of all citrus groves at SMR Farms are reserved for Tropicana in Bradenton, and most beef cattle are shipped west to be raised there. Some are used for the SMR Farms Beef program, where several area high school students raise calves on loan until they are ultimately sold back to the farm and served as beef at the Lakewood Ranch Country Club.
"Rightfully, we're known as a value-added grower who uses quality materials," Carraway noted.
In addition to this, SMR Farms strives for a balance between ranch operations and preserving the natural environment, using reclaimed water for conservation, propane-powered forklifts rather than diesel and other practices that exemplify good stewardship of the land, Carraway said.
The farm is active in the Lakewood Ranch community and surrounding Manatee County and occasionally offers tours to outside visitors. More information can be found at smrranch.com.
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.