The Commissioner’s Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award has been presented annually since 1994. The program spotlights the environmentally innovative farming practices of the state’s growers and ranchers.

Nominees for the awards come from different parts of Florida’s agricultural industry, but they all share a commitment to protect and preserve Florida’s resources while continuing to provide agricultural products for society.

Blackbeard’s Ranch is a 4500-acre working cow-calf operation located on the Myakka Prairie in Manatee County. Blackbeard’s is one of the last large intact ownerships in a region facing changes and development. The current owners believe it is critical to protect our natural and agricultural landscape; they bought Blackbeard’s in 2014 with the intention of protecting the property.

Managing partner Jim Strickland is pursuing conservation easements with the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program and Florida Forever. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) just completed a Wetland Reserve Easement on 1,500 acres. Under the Wetland Reserve Easement, wetland systems that were altered years ago will be restored and the ranch will provide clean water to the city of North Port, the Myakka River and the Charlotte Harbor Estuary.

Upon purchase, an intensive management and restoration program was implemented; under this new management the wildlife has thrived, and native habitats are flourishing. Blackbeard’s Ranch works with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on wildlife research, with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services on Best Management Practices, with NRCS on hydrological restoration, and with the University of Florida on research projects related to coyotes, burrowing owls, and soil and forage.

While running a cow-calf operation is the primary focus, Strickland has begun to diversify into other agricultural endeavors, to demonstrate how sustainable agriculture and conservation come together to protect and feed Florida. He raises Mangalitsa pigs on the ranch, has started a small brewery and produces Blackbeard’s Ranch Honey. The ranch also supplies cattle to Florida Cattle Ranchers LLC. The work on Blackbeard’s Ranch has far-reaching effects: clean water downstream, healthy wildlife, and profitable and delicious Florida products.

Strickland is also the vice-chairman of the Florida Conservation Group, a nonprofit focused on private lands conservation. He works with landowners across the state to advocate for land conservation programs.

The ultimate goal at Blackbeard’s Ranch is to educate the public on the importance of agriculture to Florida’s future, and to demonstrate how cattle ranching is critical for our water, wildlife and quality of life in Florida.