Thursday, July 24, 2014

Conquistadors, Confederates, and Cattle: Florida's Cracker Culture

There is a Longhorn standing in front of me, only I’m not in Texas. Just beyond the urban borders of Florida’s metro regions, lies the wild stuff, the un-manicured and non irrigated Florida, where the cattle roam.

Yep, you heard me. Cattle. Descendants of those abandoned by the gold seeking Conquistadors, bred with imported heat resistant varieties from Texas and India.

Florida’s cattle industry has deep roots, having been the primary supplier for beef to the Confederacy. Many of the families running cattle today ran them hundreds of years ago. Cracker Cowmen, they call themselves. And, not because they are white.

Cracker is a term the British nobility gave to early settlers, which they perceived as swashbuckling braggarts, wily frontiersmen, and all around lawless rascals. Old timers are proud of the term, as it distinguishes them from the millions of snowbirds that migrate to their peninsula each winter who could not have endured the scorching summers—let alone thrived-- without modern conveniences such as air conditioning and bug repellent as their descendants had.

You wouldn’t know it to drive down highway 192 south of Orlando that the heart of the State’s thriving cattle industry lays a stone’s throw from Disney in Kissimmee. But, it does. With nearly a million cows, the cattle industry represents one of the State’s leading agricultural revenue streams. It’s not just the beef market, but also the value of the calves that makes it so. More than 860,000 state-born calves were exported to Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma and Kansas last year.

Over the years, Ponce de Léon’s Andalusian blacks have been cross bred with imported Brahman, Angus and Hereford stock along with the Texan Longhorn, to produce a stock that can easily survive in the prickly palmetto scrub lands of Florida. Brahman cattle, known for their extreme tolerance to heat, have thick insect resistant hides and live, thus breed, longer than other varieties.  As you would expect, Florida’s home grown variety is called the Cracker Cow and is one of the rarest and oldest breeds in United States.

Newcomer Adena Meats aims to vault to the top tier of the State’s beef barons with a new variety of organic grass fed cattle. However, them’s some big words for a greenhorn. Deseret Ranches, (owned by the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), is the largest—but not oldest—ranch with 290,000 acres running a head of 44,000.  SeminolePride Beef owned by the original cowmen--the Seminoles—is the second largest, running 7,000 certified non-hormone treated, antibiotic-free, grass and corn-fed cattle. Lucky for Adena Crackers are known to have an appreciation for ‘big words’.

 The annual Cracker Storytelling Contest will be held on October 11-12th at Heritage Park in Homeland, east of Tampa.

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