Meet the Cattle Ranchers Working to Preserve Southwest Florida’s Wild Side

Southern Living,
Photos by Brown Cannon

It’s a cool and breezy morning on Blackbeard’s Ranch in Florida’s Myakka River Valley. Clouds conceal the early hints of sun and allow the dew to nestle a bit longer on the grass. It’s quiet, barring the rustle of droopy palm fronds in the wind and the distant lowing of grazing cows. You’d never guess that the powdery beaches and bright blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico are less than an hour’s drive to the west. This land is lush, green, and untamed.

Jim Strickland sits under a traditional Native American chikee hut, an open-sided structure with a thatch roof, once favored by the Seminole people of Florida. It overlooks open fields of grassy prairie. He’s wearing an old cowboy hat that looks like it’s seen many early mornings like this. When he starts to talk, he’s immediately interrupted by the loud honking of a sandhill crane congregating with two feathered pals about 10 yards away, followed by a chorus of drawn out moos from a herd of russet-red cows relaxing behind him. He laughs, unfazed by the chatty hecklers. “Some of those cattle—I knew their mothers,” he says. “Heck, I knew their grandmothers, their great-grandmothers, and even their great-great-grandmothers.” A young calf gallops playfully across the field—a mark of springtime.