Growing up in Central Florida, Erik Jacobsen pretty much knew he wanted to be a cowboy by the time he was twelve or thirteen years old.
What he didn’t know was pursuing his passion would lead to an MBA, joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and marrying the daughter of a Scottsdale, Arizona, dentist.
Today Erik runs Florida’s Deseret Ranch, one of the largest privately owned ranches in the U.S., with more than 42,000 head of cattle; 1,700 acres of citrus groves; row crops such as potatoes; forests of pine, cypress, and palm; and a complicated ecosystem that is home to more than 380 species of wildlife.
Erik says with a sly grin that his wife, Renee, a spirited mother of six, has met a lot of the wildlife on the ranchmuch of it with the bumper of the family’s Suburban.
“I don’t try to hit anything,” Renee says self-consciously. But the family is keeping a list of her victims, which include a cow from a neighboring ranch, multiple armadillos, a wild boar, some raccoons, three buzzards, Erik’s truck, and a wild Osceola turkey that she says vomited all over the window. She also came precariously close to running over a giant indigo snake that stretched across both lanes of the road. “It was this big around,” she says, eyes widening, as she holds out both hands until her fingers almost touch. “I had to lock the doors.”
Renee’s wildlife adventures aside, both Renee and Erik say there aren’t too many downsides to living on the ranch. “It takes a bit longer to get the kids to school and can, at times, feel a little isolated,” Erik concedes. But looking out across the lush landscape with palms in the distance and bald eagles soaring overhead, one can’t imagine finding a more magnificent spot.
“It has taught our kids to get up early and learn about work,” Erik explains. “My oldest son, Christian, broke and trained his own horse. When children turn fourteen, they are able to work in the groves or on a cattle crew. It can be a real confidence builder for young kids working alongside professionals.”
The ranch is owned by Farmland Reserve, Inc., a related entity of the Church of Jesus Christ, and run as a for-profit venture. And like most successful ventures, it requires great expertise. But the size and scope of the enterprise also demand a unique blend of business acumen, natural intuition, and some horse smarts.
While the core business on the ranch is cattle, Erik and his crew also manage a hunting business, sod production, mining, forestry, citrus, row crops, and large amounts of water.
“We have an extensive strategic planning process here on the ranch that enables us to look at a lot of things,” Erik says. “We identify new initiatives and are able to convert many of those into action plans.”
Another part of managing the ranch is taking care of a lot of land near a metropolitan area. The northern boundary of the ranch almost touches the city limits of Orlando. “Municipalities have needs. They need places to put their garbage and places to grow, and they’re always looking for new sources of good water,” he says. “We have to manage the conflict those challenges inevitably bring.”
These challenges seem to invigorate, rather than wear on, this cowboy businessman who has learned patience and discipline along with the finer points of running a huge agribusiness.
Becoming a Cowboy
Erik grew up in central Florida and says his parents had nothing to do with agriculture. His dad worked for the phone company, and his mom stayed home to raise him and his younger brother.
“I landed several jobs before I could drive a car—working on small ranches near where we lived,” he says. “After a little while, I found the rancher over the biggest property in the area and asked him, ‘If I wanted to manage a big ranch someday, what should I do?’ He advised me to get a degree in animal science.”
After studying at Polk Community College for a short time, Erik transferred to the University of Florida and completed a bachelor’s degree in animal science.
“With my degree, I landed a job at the Deseret Ranch as a cattle foreman supervising two other cowboys and taking care of about four thousand cows—giving them shots, rotating their grazing, testing them for pregnancy, and weaning their calves,” he says. “I spent a lot of time on horseback.”
“Paul Genho, the former general manager of Deseret Ranch and current president of Farmland Reserve, became my mentor,” Erik says. “He taught me how to be a good cattleman and introduced me to the business of ranching.”
Working on the property with Genho and other Mormons, Erik became acquainted with the church.
“If you would have asked me what a Mormon was before I came to the ranch, I would have told you they are people who wear black clothes and ride around in buggies,” he smiles. “The church was pretty obscure in the South.”
Intrigued by the way many of the people on the ranch lived, he began to casually investigate the church.
“Paul also kept close tabs on me and one day brought up the idea of me getting an MBA. He tossed out going to BYU. I applied to several schools, including the University of Florida, the University of Central Florida, and BYU,” Erik explains.
The Letter that Changed Everything
“The first response I got was from BYU,” he says. “I opened and read the letter. It was one of those moments in my life when I had such an overwhelming feeling about it that I just signed the acceptance and said, ‘I guess I’m going to BYU.’ I wasn’t a member of the church and didn’t know a soul at the university. I left my horse at the ranch, loaded my truck, and drove west. It was a major change for me. I was suddenly surrounded by LDS people.”
A lot of pivotal things happened to Erik while earning his MBA at the Y. He says, “I joined the church; met my wife, Renee Brenchley; and made the transition into a professional career as a manager. I got excellent training that has served me through my whole career. I loved every minute of being there.”
Roping New Opportunities
With an MBA, Erik’s career headed in a new direction. Paul hired him back on at the ranch—this time as an area manager. Erik oversaw citrus, managed some of the cattle, and took on special projects such as building a five hundred-acre reservoir.
Leveraging his training in finance, organizational behavior, and operations, he began assuming a larger role. After a five-year stint back in Florida, Smithfield Foods came knocking with a new opportunity . . . pigs.
Smithfield Foods was starting swine production in southern Utah, and it wanted Erik’s help launching the venture. “Pig farming is not a glamorous business,” he says, almost laughing. “But I had a really good experience helping to set up a business and seeing it flourish.”
For the first six years, Erik oversaw development, permitting, construction, and hiring. He was then promoted to general manager over the Milford, Utah, farm and a farm in Yuma, Colorado.
“Smithfield needed someone with Erik’s discipline and calm demeanor,” Renee says. “We had conflicts and all kinds of problems getting the Utah farm up and running. But when Erik decides to do something, it just happens.”
The Utah farm eventually produced 1.2 million hogs per year. Erik says, “They all went to California to be sold under the Farmer John label as bacon, sausage, and hot dogs. We even raised pigs that became Dodger Dogs sold at Dodger Stadium.”
Then, out of the blue, came an opportunity to return to Florida.
Herding the Business
“Returning to Florida was not a logical decision by any stretch,” Renee says. “But we both had separate but powerful experiences that gave us the very unambiguous feeling that we needed to go.”
The church had more plans for the Deseret Ranch, and Paul had been promoted to president of Farmland Reserve. He wanted Erik to take over in Florida.
The vision was to vertically integrate cattle production, Erik explains. The strategy was to buy a feed yard and additional ranches to create an exclusive flow of cattle that would be differentiated genetically.
Erik returned to the ranch as general manager and vice president of cattle and citrus, with responsibility for Deseret’s cattle operations in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and Canada as well as Florida citrus in Naples, Ruskin, and Clewiston.
He had a good mentor and excellent training.
“We’re making good progress toward our goals with the cattle,” Erik says. “We’ve been able to add value by taking our herds out of the commodity beef category and creating a completely traceable product. It is a big deal not only to control the quality but also to ensure food safety.”
“We breed the herd so it can thrive in the heat, humidity, insects, and heavy rainfall of Florida’s subtropical climate,” Erik explains. “We also carefully monitor production for weight gain, feed efficiency, marbling, and tenderness.”
The Florida herd utilizes the positive characteristics of Angus, Simmental, Red Poll, and South Devon combined with Brahman cattle. This hybrid is well adapted to the climate, produces some of the highest weaning weights in the industry, and delivers excellent-tasting beef.
“Use it or lose it” is the refrain for water in Florida. Consequently, land owners in the state must demonstrate responsible stewardship over this valuable resource. And that’s where spuds come in.
“We had worked with Frito-Lay in other places in the country and were looking for a new enterprise to utilize some of our water,” Erik says. “One of Frito-Lay’s plants is about forty-five minutes from the ranch, and we discovered we might be able to fill a gap in its production cycle.”
Erik involved the company in the ranch’s strategic-planning sessions. With a guaranteed customer, the ranch moved into the potato business—installing drain tile and putting in high-efficiency overhead irrigation systems that deliver water to the crops during the dry season and take it off in the wet season.
In addition to spuds, the ranch grows sod, harvests palms, mines fossilized seashells, and maintains an active wildlife-management program that involves some forty-three hunting clubs.
But the land and animals aside, one of the biggest challenges of running this multifaceted operation is dealing with people. More than 3.5 million Floridians live in the area immediately surrounding the ranch.
For the past several years Erik has spent a big chunk of his time with lawyers, city officials, and planners. They’ve been working with the county on master planning a small portion of the ranch closest to Orlando and St. Cloud, Florida, for eventual development by other entities.
“I spend more than a third of my time managing legal and planning issues,” he says. “That’s just part of running a modern ranch near a growing metropolitan area.”
Renee has seen it before. “Erik is the most organized and self-disciplined man I’ve ever met. He can take a million pieces and put them together time and time again. It’s not easy being married to someone so disciplined,” Renee says, smiling. “His experience on the pig farm—acquiring permits, planning, and managing the controversy—has really paid off.”
The Next Horizon
“It would be really hard to leave,” Renee says. “That’s why we don’t think about it. This is a magical spot to live and raise a family. We love the people. There is a certain humility, grit, and genuineness that come from working on the land.”
Erik says they’re in a good situation: “I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be right now, for me and my family. I don’t know what’s next. My goal is to do what I’m doing better than anyone else has ever done it before.”
He’s modest when it comes to talking much about specific achievements on the ranch, instead focusing on what’s left to do. “We’re looking down the road, five, ten, fifty years,” he explains. “I think we’ll have the water rights secure, the master planning in a good place, and the citrus business a little stronger. I hope to be able to see all that through.”
The landscape is almost ethereal. Spanish moss hangs from giant oaks. Stands of cypress, palmettos, and palms ring the horizon. Cows graze lazily on thick grass as a flock of waterfowl glides to its next feeding.
“Sometimes I walk out in the morning, and the sun is coming up, and I’m on this beautiful piece of property, and I think, ‘Man, I sure am lucky to have this job.’”
Article written by Joseph Ogden
Photographed by Renee Jacobsen