Summit addresses equine brand, impact on community

Billy Van Pelt of American Farmland Trust in Louisville, Ky., who was the keynote speaker, speaks during the Horse Farms Forever Conservation Summit at Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

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Posted November 27, 2020 | By Ben Baugh, Correspondent | Photography by Bruce Ackerman

What can be done in the name of stewardship to protect open spaces and beautiful places in Marion County?

Billy Van Pelt of American Farmland Trust in Louisville, Ky., who was the keynote speaker, speaks during the Horse Farms Forever Conservation Summit at Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

That question was asked Nov. 19 during the Horse Farms Forever Land Conservation Summit, presented by Brook Ledge Transportation and held at the Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club ballroom.

The summit emphasized finding ways to protect Marion County’s unique culture, where horses and horse farms are a critically important part of the community’s character and branding, and where the equine industry has a $2.6 billion annual economic impact, greater than that of Lexington, Ky., and employs more than 20,000 people.

However, the approximately 80,000 horses and 1,200 horse farms that help define the area are threatened by increasing and encroaching land development and possible transportation routes, such as the proposed Coastal Connector Road, which would have markedly changed the complexion of Marion County and altered the equine legacy that has played a prominent role in shaping the community. 

Conservation easements and deed restrictions are among the resources that can be used to reduce those vulnerabilities. The northwestern quadrant of Marion County is the Farmland Preservation Area, established in 2005, and which encompasses approximately 193,000 acres.

Horse Farms Forever was founded in 2018 as a way of raising awareness about Marion County’s vast number of horse farms and the Farmland Preservation Area, said Sarah Powell Fennessy, Horse Farms Forever director of community affairs, who will take the reins as executive director of the organization on Jan. 1.

“The catalyst for this was the FDOT’s (Florida Department of Transportation) threat to put a toll road through the heart of the county’s most pristine horse farms and our world renowned preservation area,” said Fennessy. “Since our formation, Horse Farms Forever has had a major role in insuring our farms in being protected from any development and transportation threats.”

The county’s Farmland Preservation Area must be respected and protected, even in the face of Marion County’s rapid growth, said Fennessy.

“Our goal is to raise awareness to insure that the sense of place, that our horses, horse farms and Farmland Preservation Area made unique to Marion County, will remain for future generations,” said Fennessy. “There’s no place like Ocala, Florida. We are the Horse Capital of the World. Once it’s erased, it cannot be replaced.”

The equine industry remains a vital variable to so many people’s livelihood and lives in Marion County. The board of directors developed a five-year strategic plan, and the land conservation summit is a key component of that, said Busy Shires Byerly, Horse Farms Forever director of conservation strategies.

“This isn’t just about protecting the land for horses, it’s about protecting a way of life and a very vital part of our economy,” said Byerly.

The goal of the summit was to be an inspiration and a catalyst for developing new policies in the organization’s comprehensive plan to protect the farmland preservation areas, said Byerly.

Horse Farms Forever has three additional projects in progress, said Byerly, including The Conservation Easement Outreach Project and a countywide quality of life survey being conducted with several partners. This coming spring, the not-for-profit organization will hold a second conservation summit, which will focus on conservation easements, the associated tax benefits and long-term solutions.

Brandon and Diannah Perry of Paragon Farms in Ocala and Lexington, Ky., talk with Billy Van Pelt of American Farmland Trust in Louisville, Ky., right. The mission of Horse Farms Forever is to raise awareness and provide education to ensure that the character and culture that horses and horse farms bring to Ocala/Marion County are protected for future generations. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

Marion County’s farmland, like the other industries endemic to the area, has its own unique footprint, said Billy Van Pelt II, American Farmland Trust senior director of external relations and the summit’s keynote speaker.

“It’s the factory floor of your agribusinesses, equine industry and of your agritourism industry,” said Van Pelt. “It’s your global brand and identity. It’s your global calling card.”

What can we do to have the greatest long-term impact on conservation? What can we do that’s all in the name of stewardship? Those questions were asked by Adam Putnam, CEO of Ducks Unlimited, a former U.S. Representative and former Florida Commissioner of Agriculture.

“We recognize that there’s a whole world out there that doesn’t get to drive by long stretches of highway to take in massive live oaks covered in Spanish moss, to see the foals and the training that’s going on,” said Putnam. “There are millions of children across the country that don’t have the opportunity to see a farm…thinking that food comes from the grocery store. There’s a very real need for us to make sure that that next generation doesn’t have that disconnect to the land.”

The tax risks associated with estate planning make easements an attractive planning tool, said Putnam. Easements are a critical component in being able to protect the land in perpetuity for people who are passionate about it.

“In agriculture, easements have been probably the salvation of large land holdings because they have protected that entity from having to be broken up into smaller pieces and sold on the passing of the matriarch or the patriarch (of a family),” said Putnam.

Also in attendance at the summit were Brandon and Diannah Perry of Paragon Farms, who recently pledged $100,000 to Horse Farms Forever in honor of Brian’s mother, Cathy D. Perry.

Acknowledged at the summit was the September presentation of the Robert N. Clay Conservation Award to current Horse Farms Forever President Bernard Little, by Ken Haddad of the Equestrian Land Conservation Resource. The award will be displayed in the trophy museum at the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association headquarters in Ocala.

To learn more about Horse Farms Forever, visit

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