SMR Farms … success through diversity

In the early 1900s, Mr. John Schroeder of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, assembled what later became Schroeder-Manatee Ranch as a timber plantation. The property stretched over more than 48 square miles of land that is now east of Interstate 75 in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

About 20 years later, the Uihlein family, a Milwaukee family that was instrumental in building the Schlitz Brewing Company, , turned their attention to Florida.

The Uihleins acquired the property and over the years there was an evolution in land use that added cattle ranching, citrus and vegetable farms. Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, Inc. (SMR) is one of southwest Florida’s most successful land management and agri-businesses, continuing the 100-year tradition of delivering a variety of products on the 28,000-acre [now 31,000-acre] property in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

The Uihleins pursued timber and ranching activities on the property, creating what is today Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, Inc. (SMR). Over the years, SMR has expanded to include the master-planned community of Lakewood Ranch, SMR Aggregates, The Sarasota Polo Club, The Premier Sports Complex and the diversified agricultural operations of SMR Farms.

Mac Carraway, president of SMR Farms, LLC

Mac Carraway is president of SMR Farms. He came to the company in November 2004, after spending many years in agriculture in Southwest Florida.

“SMR Farms represents the entirety of the farming operations related to Schroeder Manatee Ranch,” said Carraway. “We have the improved turfgrass division, which offers various types of improved sod and turfgrass for the residential, commercial, golf and sports markets. Then, we have a tree nursery division, which grows and sells containerized and field-grown trees for the landscape market – principally landscape contractors, developers and golf courses. These trees are typically larger specs in many different varieties.

“We also have a beef cattle division and a citrus division. The citrus is primarily for juice production although there’s a small amount of acreage producing fresh market tangerines,” Carraway said.

The Uihleins remain sole owners of the privately held company and are still very active in company business, Carraway said.

Carraway appreciates the diversity of the operation. All production managers report to him. “It’s an interesting mix of traditional and new Florida agriculture – although all of the divisions are very modern and employ the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Best Management Practices across the board,” he said. SMR has a reputation for efficient water management. For example, it has been using reclaimed water for more than 25 years to irrigate its sod and nursery and some of the citrus operations, which has resulted in significant savings in groundwater over the years.

The principal savings of groundwater has occurred, Carraway says, because of both the adoption of various low-volume irrigation systems for ag operations and the use of reclaimed water. “Based on using an average of three million gallons per day of reclaimed water, that results in about a billion gallons per year of groundwater not used, which has been the case for well over 20 years,” he said. The use of microjet and drip irrigation in the operation’s groves and nursery, along with fully-enclosed drain-tile systems in sod farms and sports fields, results in further substantial groundwater savings.

“We were early adopters of high-efficiency irrigation systems for nursery, sod and citrus production,” said Carraway. “That early adoption of reclaimed water happened long before anybody really thought much about using it as an irrigation source. It’s been an integral part of our operations for quite some time, and it’s a very successful program. We expect to continue to use reclaimed water to the maximum extent possible.”

The operation also has a traditional water use permit through the Southwest Florida Water Management District and employs a variety of water conservation BMPs, Carraway said.

A variety of Issues affect SMR Farms, depending on the division. Its citrus operations have been affected by citrus canker and citrus greening diseases. Carraway says canker and greening represent an enormous burden because management practices must be constantly re-evaluated and often changed to reflect the current level of threat. “That means significantly higher costs to operate our groves,” he said.

The turf and tree operations have felt the effects of the recession. “We have managed on the basis of our diversification to keep our focus on quality. However, the last four or five years have been kind of a grind for us,” Carraway said. “We are hopeful in that we’re seeing some improvements in home building and other economic activity in our area of West Central Florida – the Tampa Bay region to Charlotte Harbor.   There certainly have been some encouraging things happening.  We hope that that will ultimately result in us having  … more predictable activity for those divisions. Economic activity is a key factor in those two divisions,” he said.

The cattle division has enjoyed an improved market lately, although drought conditions in other areas of the country have hurt operations.

“Fluctuating corn prices affect the prices received by a cow-calf operation, and the degree to which drought conditions may be causing issues with western cattle operations also can affect our prices and margins here,” Carraway said. “We’re constantly keeping an eye on those things, even though there are limits on what we can do. So our focus is on watching our costs, maintaining quality and operating in accordance with BMPs to ensure that we’re getting the most out of land and water resources.”

SMR Farms’ turf operations are looking forward to future opportunities in international markets. “Within the last two years we’ve initiated international sales efforts and have successfully exported our turfgrasses for use on commercial, sports and golf facilities in Latin America, the Caribbean and elsewhere,” he said.   “It’s an interesting way to take advantage of the Florida port system and Florida’s year-round turf-growing season.”

FFVA records indicate SMR Farms/Schroeder-Manatee Ranch has been association members since Oct. 2, 1989. “I feel certain we had been members since well before my arrival here in 2004 but our records do not go back prior to what is probably our computer-system conversion dates,” Carraway said. “We have been SMR Farms – a separate entity  –  since 2005. Prior to that, we were members under the name of our parent company, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, Inc.”

Carraway was a member of FFVA’s board of directors for many years prior to 2003 while he was at Pacific Tomato Growers, and for three years after he came to SMR Farms. He was also on the board of Third Party Registrations, Inc. while at SMR Farms for about two years.  Third Party Registrations, Inc., a not-for-profit subsidiary of FFVA, aids FFVA members in securing specific registrations for crop protection chemicals needed on minor crops.

Learn more about SMR Farms and how diversification has been at the heart of its success on the company’s website.

This just in:
Ag Institute of Florida names Carraway 2012 AGVocate Award Recipient Mac Carraway, president of SMR Farms, LLC, has been selected as this year’s AgVocate Award recipient for his outstanding communications efforts on behalf of the turfgrass /sod industry in Florida.
Nominated by the Florida Sod Growers Cooperative in conjunction with the Florida Turfgrass Association, Carraway was cited for his work in meeting with local elected officials and with diverse stakeholder groups in several southwest Florida counties as they sought to craft and enact fertilizer ordinances.
“Mac’s firm, fair, dedicated and solution-oriented approach has been a tremendous asset for our industry, as he has been able to persuade regulators to slow down, dig deeper, and understand more as we work toward mutually beneficial solutions to the challenges Florida is facing,” said Betsy McGill, executive director of Florida Sod Growers Cooperative.
The AgVocate Award will be presented at the Ag Institute’s annual meeting on Wednesday, October 10 in Lake Buena Vista.
Past award recipients include Keith Truenow, Lake Jem Farms; Bob Spencer, West Coast Tomato; and Joe Wright, V&W Farms.


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