MANATEE -- The amount of Manatee County land in use for agriculture declined by 40,000 acres in the dozen years between 2002 and 2014, largely because of development.
As new neighborhoods are developed in the North River and Lakewood Ranch areas in the near future, the amount of farmland is expected to continue to decrease. In 2002, there were 280,593 acres in agriculture. That had declined to 240,959 acres in 2014, according to the Manatee County Property Appraiser's Office.
Property slated for development along Moccasin Wallow Road and Buckeye Road, the epicenter of much of the growth, gave little indication recently of the big new developments planned there. Some fields had been cleared and plowed in anticipation of crops to be planted.
"The huge ranches of my youth have disappeared. They are now broken up and under different ownership," said Jim Strickland, head of the agriculture department for the appraiser's office.
Notable among those are the former 2,496-acre Harllee Ranch, which is now Heritage Harbour, and the 50-square-mile Schroeder-Manatee Ranch property that is being developed as Lakewood Ranch.
Even so, Manatee County doesn't appear to be about to run out of farmland any time soon.
Agriculture continues to be Manatee's second-largest economic driver, behind tourism. Tomato growers in Manatee and Hillsborough counties grow 40 percent of Florida's tomatoes, and Manatee ranchers rank ninth in the state in beef cattle production.
During the Great Recession and real estate bust, the land lost to farming was minimal between 2008 and 2013, gaining or losing about 1,000 acres each of those years. But with the improving economy and growing confidence in the development community, farming lost 7,685 acres in 2014.
More than 23,000 new homes have already been approved for construction, or are pending approvals in traditional agricultural land in Manatee County's North River area, including Parrish and northeastern Palmetto, the Bradenton Herald previously reported.
The largest of those North River projects is Parrish Lakes, where 3,300 homes are planned on 1,155 acres.
Construction of another 17,958 new homes have been approved for the Lakewood Ranch area, which historically was dedicated to farming and ranching.
"The small farms are gone. They have disappeared," said John Cole, who has lived in Manatee County 12 years. "Houses are popping up everywhere."
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.