LDS Church makes large timberland purchase in Florida Panhandle

Published: Sunday, Nov. 10 2013 6:30 p.m. MST

Moving cattle at Deseret Ranches of Florida. There are 44,000 cows and 1,300 bulls divided among 13 different management units.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — An agricultural company owned by the LDS Church agreed Thursday to purchase 382,834 acres of timberland in the Florida Panhandle.

The St. Joe Co. announced Thursday it will sell the land to AgReserves Inc., a taxpaying company owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for $565 million. The transaction is expected to close by April 1.

The deal is a glimpse into one way church leaders practice financial responsibility with the reserves they set aside against down economic cycles.

The sale is a boon for Florida because it is "a long-term investment in the state's timber and cattle industries," Adam Putnam, the state's commissioner of agriculture, said in a statement.

Land conservation

News of the transfer of nearly 600 square miles in the Panhandle drew responses from a variety of sources.

Conservationists hope the church's company is mindful of the important northwest Florida watersheds it has acquired. The Conservation Fund's George Willson said he was pleased "to see that someone with a record of stewardship is buying it."

"This is not a bad outcome," he told the Tallahassee Democrat. "I suspect the new owners will pay attention to all these rural communities they will be a part of."

Many of the reactions alluded to the way the church has managed another large spread in Florida, the 290,000-acre Deseret Ranches in central Florida, since the early 1950s.

A manager at Foley Timber, a Florida-based timber company, told the Tampa Bay Times the church's track record made him view the deal favorably.

"We're glad to see roughly 400,000 acres will be in long-term private ownership," Bo Taff said. "And based on what we know of the company and their land management practices in central Florida, we believe they will be good stewards of the land in north Florida as well."

Putnam, the commissioner of agriculture, echoed that sentiment: "This transaction between two of Florida's largest and most-committed land stewards is a meaningful reminder of the economic and ecological value of agriculture in our state. For decades, The St. Joe Company has played an important role in conserving the landscape of Florida’s Panhandle, and AgReserves, Inc., will build on that commitment while continuing to support the local economy."

The chairman of the board of AgReserves Inc. said Friday in a statement provided to the Deseret News that the company would remain invested in agriculture and conservation.

"This purchase clearly demonstrates the depth of AgReserves’ commitment to agriculture in Florida," Paul Genho said. "We are farmers and ranchers. We’ve been ranching in Florida for 63 years. We love to grow things. We think agriculture is a noble pursuit, and we are proud to be agriculturists. We help feed the world. We love the land and strive to be good citizens in the communities where we live and work. We preserve and protect our land and natural resources and plan far into the future for the places we call home. It is our intent that this purchase will remain in agriculture for a long, long time.”

A 2011 story in the Deseret News detailed some of the operations at the Deseret Ranches. The story said the land managed more than 40,000 head of cattle. The diverse ranch also is home to about a quarter million citrus trees, timberland, sod and tree farms, some commercial crops and large deposits of fossilized seashells used in road base.

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