LAKEWOOD RANCH — Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch built its foundation on the agricultural industry. And now, that facet of the company is branching outward.
SMR Farms, the division responsible for SMR’s agricultural operations, is spearheading the company’s first expansion off SMR property.
The company is leasing 200 acres in St. Cloud, where the first crop of turf grasses are now available for purchase. More than three years of preparation have gone into the endeavor.
“Right now, we’re pretty excited about (the new operation),” SMR Farms President Mac Carraway said. “We feel like it’s going to give us a chance to get our farm firmly established in that market.”
The new operation is offering several varieties of sod, including St. Augustine and Empire Zoysia, as well as turf springs and rolls at its new East Coast location.
The vision for such an opportunity began back in 2004 when the real estate market was hot. SMR leaders began looking at the rate of development on SMR’s 30,000-acre property and realized its agricultural and other operations may one day be pushed off its existing land, Carraway said.
Although full development of the property was still many years away, leaders wanted to begin planning for the future.
“We’ve had successful agricultural operations here for a long time,” Carraway said. “There wasn’t a reason for us to think the things we do are restricted to this property.”
Carraway and his team began looking for potential sites off SMR’s property. Coincidentally around that time, citrus canker claimed many citrus groves, leaving former growers with land no longer usable for the citrus industry.
“As an exploratory effort, we talked to some of these people about putting turf or landscaping trees (on their property),” Carraway said. “These are the most mobile of the things we do.”
The discussions did not lead to any business deals but helped cement Carraway’s belief expansion was possible to allow the company to take on more market share locally.
SMR Farms began looking northward to Tampa and southward to Naples and Ft. Myers, among other areas, to learn of opportunities there. But the Orlando area seemed to be most promising.
Carraway pulled out a map to see what areas may best suit a new operation, noting accessibility for customers and keeping freight costs down were of the utmost importance.
A 200-acre plot in the St. Cloud area proved to be the perfect location.
“It was close enough to manage from here without a whole new administrative setup,” Carraway said.
SMR Farms officially leased the site in late 2006 and quickly set to clearing the land, designing a farm plan, installing drainage and irrigation systems and other key components before planting turf.
Carraway said the company is in the process of planting landscaping trees along the roadside at its St. Cloud farm location to better gauge if tree farming would be a viable option for that market.
“We’re dipping our toes in the water on that,” Carraway said.
Carraway said the company has the opportunity to further expand — up to 600 acres in total — at its St. Cloud location.
The company is working to identify and develop a strong customer base in the area and to build relationships with suppliers.
“We’re developing our own little network over there,” Carraway said. “It really turned out (well).”
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].