The primary source of economic activity in Highlands County is agriculture. Within that category, most economic activity comes from citrus production, nursery products, beef cattle and dairy operations. There is also an increased amount of acreage dedicated to specialty and field crops including caladiums, strawberries, grapes, blueberries, and a wide range of herbs and vegetables. Over two-thirds of the county’s land area in the county is involved in some type of agricultural production. Nearly one-third of roughly 41,000 jobs in Highlands County are held within agriculturally related professions.
With over 8 million citrus trees planted on nearly 65,000 acres, Highlands County is Florida’s third-largest total citrus producer. The most recent growing season produced more than 24 million, 90-pound boxes of oranges – enough to produce nearly 40 million gallons of juice. The citrus industry employs 2,500-3,000 people on a year-round, full-time basis; a number that more than doubles harvesting season, which begins in October and ends in June.
Most of the county’s citrus crop is transported to area juice processing plants for distribution to both national and international markets. Approximately 13 percent of the tasty and nutritious orange juice sold in North America originates here in Highlands County. We also produce wonderful table-grade citrus, which travels through the state’s packing house system prior to shipment worldwide. According to the Florida Department of Agriculture, the statewide citrus production results in an annual economic impact of more than $9.1 billion. Estimated annual economic benefits to Highlands County derived from the citrus industry are in excess of $200 million.
Highlands County’s citrus growers are among the leaders in state water conservation efforts, and in implementing state-of-the-art application techniques and best management practices, resulting in reduced use of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and other farm chemicals. These practices are developed in conjunction with the University of Florida, the Florida Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Growers are constantly investing in research in order to find better ways to grow and harvest fruit safely and efficiently, enhancing the quality of consumer products. These same local growers pay more than $4 million per annum in citrus advertising taxes to promote their products through the Florida Department of Citrus. They pay more than $5 million in annual ad valorem property taxes, while receiving less than 40 cents in governmental services for each tax dollar paid. Therefore, roughly 60 percent of the tax dollars contributed by citrus growers benefit other county taxpayers by keeping local property taxes low. Many of Highlands County’s growers provide invaluable community and leadership involvement in a variety of community roles as well. To say that the local citrus industry is critically important to Highlands County is an understatement.
The nursery products industry is Florida’s fastest growing agricultural sector. Highlands County is home to the largest greenhouse operation in the state – the fourth largest employer in the county. A wide range of nursery products, from delicate indoor plants to hardy landscaping varieties, are grown locally. Nursery propagation here takes place in environmentally controlled structures, and in open fields. A number of local agricultural operations are engaged in sod, turf and forestry products as well. Nursery production in Highlands County accounts for estimated economic benefits to the area in excess of $70 million.
Overall, the largest use of acreage in Highlands County is dedicated to the beef cattle industry. Over 50 percent of the 1,029 square miles here is utilized for cattle grazing, including some of the most diversified and pristine environmental areas. Florida ranks 10th in production of beef cattle nationally, with Highlands County ranking third statewide in the number of beef cows and calves. According to Florida Department of Agriculture statistics, there are more than 101,000 total cows and calves grazing annually on over 360,000 acres in Highlands County.
Florida cattlemen are our first-line environmentalists when it comes to the proper use and management of the land and our natural resources. They understand that responsible protection of wetlands, hammocks, cut-throat seeps, native ranges and other natural vegetative areas is important to the conservation of our natural environment, providing shade, water and forage for cattle. Employing environmental safeguards and enhancements assures continued productivity of the land for future generations.
Local cattle operations range in size from under 10 head to several thousand per ranching operation. Average herd size in the county is about 250, compared to 25-50 elsewhere in Florida and the nation. While a few ranches are corporately owned, the vast majority of cattle ranches in Highlands County are family owned and operated. Many of the family owned operations have operated through multiple generations – making the proud history and reputation of local cattlemen as outstanding caretakers of the land highly understandable.
Highlands County is poised to be a major player in Florida’s agricultural future. Adam Putnam, Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture has labeled Highlands County as “the cradle on innovation in regards to bio-fuel production,” and said that this county would serve as both the “pioneer and proving ground” for the emerging bio-fuel feedstock economic sector. There is a very bright future in the production of food, fiber and fuel in Highlands County. Our diversified nature of agricultural production should ensure that agriculture remains the strong economic engine that helps drive the county.
Agriculture is proud to keep Highlands County growing!