07/09/2004 12:00AM

Trend toward smaller farms


The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released a national five-year farm study. Included in the data is a survey of some two million acres employed in Florida agriculture from 1997 through 2002.

In Florida's Marion County, where Ocala is located, Thoroughbred investment in farm land is booming while the farms shrink in size. The USDA study shows the number of horse farms in the Ocala area jumped from 2,370 in '97 to 2,930 in '02. But the acreage devoted to these horse farms was down from a 119-acre average in '97 to 92 acres in '02. The trend is definitely toward smaller, boutique operations.

When it comes to agricultural farms that don't involve horses, the trend was just the opposite. Such farms were decreasing in numbers, but the size of new farms was increasing. Many real estate agents attribute this to "sheltering" land for future development.

Agriculturally zoned land values went up an average of 21 percent in the five-year period, from $2,344 per acre to $2,836 per acre. But, the value Marion County horse land had risen by almost 50 percent to roughly $5,000 per acre.

For the better part of a decade, land values in and around the Ocala area remained steady. About four or five years ago, these land values began to heat up, and while $5,000 per acre is an area average, choice raw land suitable for Thoroughbred boutique farms can cost two to three times as much, or even more.

Twenty-five years ago, the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' Association estimated that Marion County had at the peak of the winter season roughly 14,000 Thoroughbreds within its borders. Marion County, according to the USDA, had an overall horse population of just under 27,000 in 2002.

Rosemere a pioneer operation

For the first half of the 20th century, Florida's Thoroughbred industry had little representation north of Fort Lauderdale. Thoroughbred farms began in the 1930's and were located mainly in Dade and Broward counties, mostly near old Tropical Park, Hialeah, and Miami Airport. A significant exception was Carl G. Rose's Rosemere Farm. Rosemere Farm was a 600-acre Thoroughbred nursery and cattle farm developed in 1939. The farm was located on the then western perimeter of Ocala.

Rose had Indiana roots, and he was an opportunist. Rose was confident that the ubiquitous limestone rock native to Marion County was the right stuff to make Florida roadways. He successfully pitched his concept of limestone content roads to the Florida Department of Transportation and in so doing made his first fortune. Real estate would make him another.

Rosemere Farm is long gone. It was sold for $1,500 per acre in 1961 to a syndicate of Virginia investors headed by M. Tyson Gilpin. For a while it operated as a branch of Liz Whitney's Llangollen Farm, but the city of Ocala was growing and the former Rosemere Farm site was far too valuable to stay in agriculture.

The late Elmer Heubeck, Jr. left his native Maryland shortly after World War II to manage Rosemere Farm. It was he, together with Rose, who pioneered the strategy of bypassing the yearling sales and taking the finished product instead to the receiving barns of Hialeah and old Tropical Park and selling them there as 2-year-olds in training.

It was these 2-year-olds in training, mostly with obscure and unfashionable pedigrees, who, by dint of their accomplishments, focused attention on Florida-breds in general and Ocala in particular.