MOUNT DORA, Fla, – Raquel Martin knows first-hand the development pressures farmers face in Lake County. As vice president of Liner Source, an ornamental nursery with about 200 acres, she says some of the offers she’s received for her land have been “insane.”
“It’s $100,000 an acre easy,” Martin, 36, said. “Big developers, big bucks.”
Martin says she’s committed to her business, but the offers have been tempting in part because of an ongoing fight with her neighbors over housing for migrant workers.
“To be a farmer, it costs a lot,” she said. “With the community not being as supportive as you would hope, it feels like it’s not worth doing.”
As rising land prices around Orlando push development outward, Lake County is attracting new development to satisfy a growing population. Farmland is being gobbled up, and a rural way of life is diminishing.
“Farming has gotten a lot harder over the years,” said Michael Hill, a fourth-generation farmer and president of the Lake County Farm Bureau. “Definitely the landscape is changing.”
Since 1981, the population of Lake County has nearly quadrupled, from 108,550 to 400,142 in 2021, according to research from the University of Florida. The county is expected to add as much as another 143,000 people by 2030.
In 2017, Lake produced $216 million in agricultural goods, making it the 10th most productive county for that category in the state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Orange was ninth, with $232 million.
The department’s survey is conducted every five years, with the next results expected in 2023.
Lake’s commitment to agriculture is written into its laws.
In the regulations for agricultural zoning, for example, the county states, “Agriculture is a major industry of the county; therefore it is the intent of this district to: Provide long term means for preventing further encroachment upon agricultural enterprises; to encourage agricultural pursuits by preserving good soils and agricultural areas from subdivision development or commercial and industrial construction.”
However, between 2012 and 2017, Lake lost roughly 90 farms, or about 5% of the total farms in the county, according to the USDA. The county has lost 7.6% of its agricultural acreage since 2008.
Hill, 35, says it isn’t just the population growth that’s putting the squeeze on most area farmers. It’s the economics of farming.
Rising costs and cheap imports has cut into the bottom line, particularly for small farmers, Hill said. When that happens, land tends to be the first thing to go.
“A farmer’s land is a 401(k),” Hill said. “We don’t put money into the stock market; we put it into our land.”
More than $300 billion in U.S. farmland has a mortgage, according to data aggregator Statista. That means selling is often the only way to make up for a bad year.
“You don’t have a choice,” Hill said. “You still have to pay for the land.”
More than just homes
Around the county, a transformation is under way, and it includes more than homes and apartments. In the south, the Wellness Way Area Plan is bringing mixed-use developments such as Olympus, which will include health and fitness centers and sports venues.
Amazon signed on to build a new logistics center in the Christopher C. Ford Commerce Park. And the Wolf Branch Innovation District along Mount Dora will take advantage of the region’s greater connectivity, bringing in tech and education jobs and building new village-style developments.
In Eustis, birthplace of the tangelo, more than 1,500 housing units are planned or in construction.
Some, such as in a new five-story building downtown, are one-bedroom apartments designed for young professionals and what town manager Tom Carrino calls “active adults,” young professionals and retirees who want to stay in the community.
“We’re no longer the edge of the universe,” Carrino said, largely crediting extensions to State Road 429 that started opening to traffic in 2016 for the new possibilities for growth. While he says the goal is to keep the quaint character of Eustis’ downtown, he says the need for new industry and entertainment is pressing. “You can’t maintain the status quo forever.”
One of Carrino’s active adults is Karen Lawrence, owner of Lulu Candles, a manufacturer. Lawrence said she moved her business from Miami to Eustis a year ago, bringing 20 employees and hiring 30 more in town.
Lawrence was attracted to the quaint charms of downtown Mount Dora, where she bought her home. She’d like the local towns to keep their old-world identities, but add more to do.
“I miss restaurants,” she said. “It needs more people. And I know they’re coming.”
Martin, a mother of two, says she’s been happy with the ways Eustis has added public activities for kids and families. “[Eustis] seems more open to change than Mount Dora,” she said.
A new way of farming
Hill understands the pressure on the county to adapt. During the recession in 2008, Hill’s H&A Farms, with locations in Lake and Orange, switched over from landscaping trees to blueberries and other crops.
“We had to diversify to not be so reliant on housing,” he said.
His family, who owns Southern Hill Farms in Clermont, has also changed over the years to become more of a local attraction. It is one of more than two dozen U-pick farms, part of the county’s growing agritourism segment.
The county also features tours of farms such as Lakeridge Winery, as well as festivals for blueberry harvest, pumpkins and more.
Agritourism is more than just an attraction for Hill.
“It’s going to be important for our community, if they want agriculture, they’re going to have to go to these farms and buy direct,” he said.
In Apopka, just south of the Lake County line, engineering consultant Jay Parker is getting ready to leave behind his 20-acre horse farm he has built for the past two decades. A new development from Lennar Homes is going to surround his property with 165 townhomes.
Parker’s plan is to move onto 100 acres in Lake County’s mostly empty northeast, clearing land to reconstruct his horse ranch and using the rest to buffer against new development.
“I never thought I’d have to do this again in my lifetime,” he said.
Hill sees a future where “gentlemen farmers” such as Parker become the primary keepers of farmland in Lake County.
“There will always be some ag, but it will be more your doctors or lawyers where they have some cows or pasture,” he said.
This story is part of an occasional series called Moving Out focusing on growth in metro Orlando suburbs and the conflicts it can cause.
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