Saturday, August 6, 2011 at 11:26 p.m.
Car parts magnate and Marion County horseman Frank Stronach seeks to bring a new venture to his adopted community: a sprawling cattle ranch.
The Canadian billionaire plans to establish a state-of-the-art cattle harvesting facility near Fort McCoy that would provide 150 jobs to the economically distressed north Marion community, Stronach’s representatives said.
Barring any setbacks, the facility is expected to be in operation by Oct. 1, 2012.
Mark Roberts, manager of Stronach’s Adena Springs South farm, said his boss has been on a systematic land-buying spree in recent months.
Stronach has already acquired, or has under contract, roughly 24,000 acres for the Fort McCoy project, Roberts said.
Stronach, meanwhile, is in negotiations to acquire hundreds of additional acres nearby.
Stronach has purchased thousands more acres in neighboring Levy County to create a second cattle ranch that will support the Marion operation, known as Adena Ranches.
Stronach has spent $62 million obtaining land in the two counties, Roberts said. By the time the other acquisitions are settled, his investment will top $80 million.
That excludes another $30 million expense for the 61,000-square-foot abattoir — and a related biomass energy plant that will power it — that would be a larger version of a plant in Edmonton, Canada.
Stronach, Roberts said, is promising a clean, quiet, odor-free operation that would provide a “low-stress” environment for the cattle as well as the neighbors.
Under the plan, the harvesting facility would be located in the heart of the property — 1½ miles west of County Road 315 and at least a mile from the nearest residence.
“You’re not going to know it’s there unless you work there,” said Jimmy Gooding, an Ocala lawyer representing Stronach in the project.
Much of the property is currently wooded, and while some would be cleared for pasture and the harvesting house, Stronach intends to retain trees on as much as 40 percent of the land for commercial timber operations.
“I’ve never seen this amount of buffer for a commercial facility,” Gooding added.
According to Roberts, Stronach’s vision is to raise, harvest and sell all-natural, hormone-free, grass-fed beef cattle to supply to his “built-in customer base” in his other operations throughout the country, as well as to restaurants.
Stronach, 78, owns thoroughbred racing tracks in Florida, Maryland and California, and has won the sport’s top award for breeders multiple times.
Although he sold off most of his holdings in June, and thus surrendered control of the company, Stronach remains a director of Magna International, the tool-and-die company he started in 1957 and built into the largest auto-parts supplier in North America.
That deal, which took 11 months to complete, netted Stronach $970 million, according to Bloomberg News.
Roberts said Stronach has expressed interest in launching his own chain of restaurants, which would feature his Fort McCoy-harvested beef, dubbed Adena Meats.
Roberts acknowledged that Adena Ranches would be a departure from his employer’s usual business model. But, he added, Stronach is a farmer at heart.
“Frank’s feeling is that in the times ahead, food production is going to be a major thing. It’s just getting harder and harder because of a lack of land,” Roberts said.
Besides, Roberts added, “Owning land is never a bad thing.”
Yet Stronach also hopes to appeal to a growing demand, as stated by some food providers, for locally produced agriculture.
At the same time, Stronach is targeting a specific market within the industry, according to the Florida Cattleman’s Association.
All cattle start out with a grass-based diet and spend the majority of their lives grazing in a pasture. But they don’t end up that way.
Most beef cattle, the association points out, are switched to a grain-based diet just before they are harvested, spending between four and six months housed in a feedlot, or a feedyard.
This period is sometimes called the “finishing phase,” and the animals are attended by professional nutritionists, veterinarians and employees who daily monitor the cattle’s health.
In contrast, “grass-finished” cattle tend to take more time and resources to reach appropriate market weight, and thus tend to cost consumers more, the association notes.
Ashley Hughes, marketing director for the Florida Beef Council, explained in an email that because of the resources involved and the climatic conditions needed, grass-finished cattle constitute a “very small segment” of the beef industry.
Hughes also observed that Florida ranchers tend to ship their cattle to the feedlots in the Midwest because it costs less than raising those animals in Florida.
Cheap corn holds down the production costs, despite the transportation expenses, she added.
“I applaud this company for reaching out to a growing niche market in Florida. However, the majority of Americans still base their decisions on food purchases with their wallets, and commercial beef is humanely raised by cattle men and women who produce an inexpensive, yet safe, wholesome and delicious beef product.”
As now planned, the Fort McCoy site would be home to between 6,000 and 7,000 head of cattle, Roberts said.
The Levy County site would contain about the same number.
But the butchering would be conducted only at the Marion facility, which will start slowly but in time could process 300 head daily.
The beef would be quartered and stored in refrigerated units on the site and shipped out to customers, Roberts said.
Further processing could occur there in the future, Roberts added, but is not in the immediate plans.
The offal and the blood would be captured and shipped off for other uses, he said.
Stronach must obtain a special-use permit from the County Commission for the harvesting facility before proceeding.
Gooding said that application would be filed this week.
The project should go to the Zoning Commission for a recommendation in September and to the County Commission for final consideration and approval in October.
If approved, the project could be under way as early as November, with construction ending in fall 2012.
Gooding said the proponents are bracing for c.
The harvesting facility would use about 50,000 gallons of water a day, with 90 percent of that recycled for irrigating the pastures, according to Gooding.
The amount of water needed for the pastures is unknown at this point because the design of the project is not yet finished, he added.
Stronach is seeking approval for that from state water managers, Gooding said.
Roberts wanted to reassure potential critics that this would not be business as usual for the cattle.
The herd would be bred on-site, and the animals, as they mature, would be gradually shepherded from one end of the ranch to the other until meeting their fate — a moment, Roberts emphasized, that would be stress-free.
“Our philosophy on this is the well being of the animal,” he said. “Frank loves animals and doesn’t want to see any of them suffer.”
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