Walt Bell of Adena Springs checks the grade with a laser elevation device of the area for the foundation of the new 67,000-square-foot grass-fed beef processing facility on land that Frank Stronach purchased off County Road 315, north of Fort McCoy.
If Frank Stronach were to build Disney World in Marion County, he would already have enough land to do it.
The Canadian–based businessman has increased his Marion County land holdings in the past two years nearly sixfold, making him the largest private property owner in the county with 29,000 acres. (Walt Disney World in Orlando encompasses somewhere around 25,000 acres.) Only the U.S. Forestry Department, which owns the Ocala National Forest, and Florida's various state agencies have more land in Marion County than does Stronach.
And he's looking for more.
Behind the land grab are plans for a sprawling cattle ranch with tens of thousands of grass-feed, hormone-free cattle for beef production.
Until 2010, the 79-year-old Stronach was mostly known in the area for his 3,800-acre thoroughbred horse farm in Williston.
The international car parts magnet bought the Adena Springs spread during the 1990s. It is one of five such farms he owns across the United States and Canada. The new cattle operation will be called Adena Springs Ranch.
Only about seven years ago did he start amassing cattle at the Williston farm. The operation includes about 400 cows at that farm and another 1,100 on other area properties. For most area cattlemen, that's a lot. For Stronach, it's a first step.
According to documents submitted to Florida water agencies, Stronach's herd could reach 30,000, if not more.
Paving the path for Stronach becoming a cattle baron is cash — and a lot of it. He recently sold his interest in the car parts company he created for reportedly $1 billion. And since 2010, some of that money has gone to buy 24,489 acres in the Fort McCoy area and another 36,000 acres in Levy County. Some of the land will also be set aside for timber.
The price tag for the land in both counties and beef processing operation: $80 million.
The end result will be a beef cattle business that dwarfs any other ranch in sight. In a county where most cattle herds top out at about 1,200 head, and most cattlemen own fewer than 50, Stronach's operation will be in a league of its own.
Essentially, Stronach's plan is to send his younger cows to Levy County and as they mature, gradually bring them to pastures closest to the meat processing plant, said Rick Moyer, who oversees Stronach's cattle operation in Marion County.
In his application with the St. Johns Water Management District, Stronach seeks permission to pump as much as 13.27 million gallons of water per day to irrigate his fields, cool his proposed power plant and operate his 61,000-square-foot beef processing operation.
But most of that water will be used to grow grass, especially in the drier winter months, to feed cattle, Moyer said.
Unlike most area cattlemen, Stronach won't send his cows west to feedlots to gain the weight they'll need before slaughter. Instead, Stronach plans to meet a growing demand for cattle kept on a strict grass diet producing a leaner, and many say healthier beef. But to grow and supply that much grass to his cows, Stronach needs water.
If the operation grows to its intended size, more cows will have the Stronach brand on their backsides than all the beef cows currently in Marion County combined.
There were only 26,000 beef cows in Marion County last year, which already made it Florida's 11th ranking beef cattle producing county, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
If there are no hitches in the project, the ranch will be operational by early 2013.
Meanwhile, Stronach still has his fingers in horse racing. Has has controlling shares in Santa Anita race track in California and Gulfstream in Florida, as well as stakes in Laurel Park and Pimlico in Maryland.
And it's not just cattle he plans for Marion County. Near the intersection of U.S. 441 and State Road 326, is evidence of Stronach's other handiwork.
The business tycoon is building a world-class, 420-acre golf course. There will be 120 homes on one-acre lots clustered throughout the links, as well as another 800 acres adjacent to the north for more home development.
Mark Roberts is Stronach's Adena Springs general manager and is overseeing Stronach's land purchases. He said the boss likes to keep moving.
“As much as he likes the horse business, he likes to build stuff,” Roberts said. “And his vision is like no one I've ever seen. Building and creating new things keeps him going.”
Stronach is also a man bent on knowing the details of his projects. Roberts said he has all the qualities that make a good businessman.
“Frank wants to know what you think. He's not always going to agree with you, but he still wants to know. …
“He values constructive criticism. That's what separates him from a lot of people,” Roberts said. “He doesn't like anything done halfway.”
Stronach did not return Star-Banner telephone calls for this story.
Amid a lingering recession, high local unemployment and closing businesses, many in the community welcome Stronach's plans with open arms.
For County Commissioner Charlie Stone, Stronach's venture means jobs — 150 at the meat processing plant alone.
“The economy … that is our priority one,” Stone said of the commission. “The No. 1 focus is job creation.”
The economic impact will be widespread and won't be confined to just the Stronach ranch, Stone said. That's because there will be many indirect jobs that come out of the project.
Such a large operation will generate work in the lumber business (fencing), transportation (hauling cattle and meat to vendors), sales (heavy machinery and irrigation equipment to water grass), project proponents say.
The economic impact will be many millions of dollars each year, they predict.
Stone shrugs off any issues about one man controlling so much acreage, especially since it's agricultural land. If it was all residential or commercial property, Stone said, that would be another issue.
As for the project's water needs, Stone said he's not overly concerned. Most of that water will be used for irrigation and seep back into the ground and back into the aquifer, he said.
David Tillman, one of Stronach's engineers on the project, said the request for permission to withdraw 13.27 million gallons is just that: permission. In all likelihood, Tillman said that amount would almost never be needed.
He said much of the grazing land is already soggy with a clay underlayer and able to hold water well enough that it won't need much watering.
Water and pollution
But environmental activist Guy Marwick said he's not buying those reassurances. He also said the promise of jobs shouldn't persuade the county to give Stronach an easy pass.
“They say they'll need the water during a drought? We're in a drought. We're in the most severe drought,” Marwick said. “Silver Springs is at its lowest point in recorded history. The Ocklawaha is at its lowest in recorded history.
“It's one man's plan to use more water than all the people who live and visit Ocala and we're being asked to water our lawns no more than once a week. You can't expect to take 13 million gallons and not have an impact,” Marwick said.
Ocala uses about 12.85 million gallons daily.
Another problem is waste. The average adult beef cow produces about 60 pounds of manure waste daily. If Stronach raises only a third of his expected herd and half are younger, smaller cows, producing only half the manure, waste would still approach nearly 500,000 pounds of waste a day.
Marwick said he fears much of that waste will find its way through the groundwater and into the Silver Springs and Ocklawaha River.
“All that cow manure has to go somewhere,” he said. “We could have nitrate-ladened water in quantities never before imagined.”
Stronach's engineering reports to St. Johns Water Management District predicts only minimal environmental impacts upon the Fort McCoy area.
Hugh Dailey, former president of the Marion County Cattleman's Association, said he sees Stronach's project as a financial booster shot in Marion County's arm and an economic bonanza for many area cattle operations.
Dailey said it will likely take years for Stronach to build his herd to the size he wants. That means he could end up turning to other local cattlemen for help, buying some of their cows to meet his demand.
Stronach's meat processing plant could also be a godsend for some local cattlemen not wanting to send their cattle to feedlots and slaughter houses west. Instead, they can maybe use his processing plant and save transportation costs, Dailey said.
But tying up that much land does more than create jobs, Dailey said. It also helps the county maintain its agricultural roots.
“It's really better than a subdivision with houses on it. It keeps us diversified … and he's a guy putting a lot of capital ...in the county,” he said.
E.L. Strickland, manager of Circle Square, said that Stronach is using his money to fill a niche in the beef market that most local cattlemen couldn't afford.
Along with being hormone-free, Stronach's cattle will only be grass-fed and not sent to feedlots out west to fatten on grains and corn. The result is that the meat will be far leaner.
Grain-fed cattle have a more marbled and sweeter tasting meat because of the higher fat content.
But Stronach is tapping into the market of people wanting a leaner cut, which offers health benefits.
Grass-fed beef accounts for less than 2 percent of the beef market share, by volume, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
Jumping into that mostly untapped market with enough money backing him will give Stronach a head start, Strickland said.
Strickland, who oversees a 9,000-acre, 1,200-head operation, said that to make such an operation financially feasible, it needs its own slaughterhouse, marketing and transportation infrastructure — all of which Stronach can supply.
“That's the only way it works,” Strickland said.
Strickland's farm also raises hormone-free cows but sends them west to feedlots to fatten.
And with enough money, Strickland said that Stronach could have his herd of 30,000 cows within a year.
Even if the all-natural, grass-fed beef market collapsed, Strickland said Stronach could always send his cattle out west to fatten, like most everyone else, “and be a regular cowboy.”
As for his vast land purchases, Strickland said, “if you put the money in the bank, what's interest?”
“If you have money, land is nice to have.”
Contact Fred Hiers at [email protected] and 867-4157.