MANATEE -- Manatee County commissioners boarded a bus Tuesday for a fact-finding tour of Manatee's agricultural businesses.
The idea was to "take a comprehensive look at Manatee County agriculture," according to Jim Strickland of the Manatee County Property Appraiser's Office and a long-time East Manatee County rancher.
The county boasts about 250,000 acres of agricultural land, which produces a diverse array of farm products with an agricultural economic impact of $646 million, officials said.
The delegation's first stop was Lakewood Ranch's Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc., where President Mac Carraway explained how the firm weathered the recession.
When the economy crashed, homebuilding came to an abrupt stop, sending the company's containerized tree business into a tailspin.
"We went from selling truckloads of trees everyday to selling nothing," he told the commissioners accompanied by county staff members, reporters and citizens.
Fortunately, the company also produces beef cattle, citrus and turf grass. The diversification helped it to survive the downturn, he said.
The next stop was Enza Zaden Research Farm near Myakka, one of 20 research stations around the world operated by the privately owned company that specializes in scientific fruit and vegetable breeding.
In 2007, the company bought 46 acres in Manatee County and invested $10 million in a research facility that produces items such as hybrid tomato and sweet pepper seeds for sale, said Kent Rorem, station manager. Plans for a $1.1 million new office-warehouse are in the works, he said.
"I just want to say 'thank you' for making Manatee County your home," said County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who represents East Manatee.
At Strickland Cattle & Exports Inc., an East Manatee business owned and operated by Strickland and his wife, Renee, delegation members said they were impressed with the company's international work.
Renee Strickland told the group she regularly packs a Boeing 747 airliner full of animals such as cattle, horses or sheep, and flies them to various places on the planet.
Sometimes, it's animals she raised herself on one of her farms, but she also helps others transport animals they have raised or bought as well, she said.
At Jones Potato Farm near Parrish, owner Alan Jones showed commissioners huge sacks of potatoes that comprise the raw material for potato chips made by companies such as Frito-Lay. Jones runs a geographically complex operation, shipping potatoes nationwide and internationally, he said.
The easiest part, he said, is growing and packing the produce. The hardest part, he said, is getting paid enough for it.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.