A Legacy of Land

An award-winning rancher and pioneering conservationist, a sixth-generation cattleman looks ahead to generations seven, eight—and beyond.

By Tanner Latham | Photos By C. Michael Potthast

Cary Lightsey, with the help of his brother, Layne (left), overcame a huge loss and big obstacles to save the family ranch

Cary Lightsey, with the help of his brother, Layne (left), overcame a huge loss and big obstacles to save the family ranch

Cary Lightsey was bred to be a rancher. “My granddad had a saying,” he offers, “‘You can take a Lightsey away from his parents at childbirth, move him to another state, check on him 30 years later, and he’d be in the cattle business.’ And I believe that’s the truth.

“When they asked us in school what we wanted to grow up and be, I always said a cowboy,” says the tall, slender guy, who ambles with a limpy gait he earned after horse accidents during poacher chases.

“And it never crossed my mind to do anything else. My children are the same way. It’s just almost automatic.”

The first Lightseys to raise cows on the flat lands of central Florida arrived here in the 1850s. Cary traces his lineage back to a German immigrant who landed in Beaufort, S.C., in 1712 and began his life in America with a government-issued cow and bull, along with 300 bushels of corn and 320 acres of land.

Today, Cary and his older brother Layne and their families own more than 18,000 acres and lease another 17,000-plus acres of pasture and farmland just south of Orlando and in south Georgia. And by committing 80 percent of their owned land to conservation easements (they sell the development rights to the land, but retain ownership), they have preserved thousands of environmentally sensitive acres of wetlands and areas populated by endangered plant and animal species.

One of Cary’s goals is to preserve the land for grandkids like 4-year-old Gabe Chandley.

One of Cary’s goals is to preserve the land for grandkids like 4-year-old Gabe Chandley.

The Lightsey Expanse

Drive east for 15 miles from the town of Lake Wales, Fla., on Highway 60, and you’ll see a weathered sign reading “Lightsey Cattle Co.” rising from the pasture. Turn north there on the two-lane road, and at once everything in all directions is Lightsey. Every blade of grass, patch of silty dirt, and wire-wrapped fence post. They own a large portion of the western edge of Lake Kissimmee, as well as the lake’s 2,800-acre Brahma Island, the largest freshwater island in the United States.

Among other operations, the Lightseys farm 420 acres of citrus—navel and red grapefruits, and Hamlin and Valencia oranges. They maintain more than 700 acres of Bahia sod and seed, and 2,800 acres of hay, including a grass called Jigs from the Sudan region of Africa. They raise close to 7,000 head of cattle, including 120 purebred Charolais and 220 non-registered Black Angus cows.

They also allow guided commercial hunts out on Brahma Island. Hunters from all over the country—including a few celebrities, such as Shaquille O’Neal and Bruce Willis—motor to the island several times a year to track wild boar and exotic deer.

Meet the 6th, 7th, and 8th generations of Lightseys to herd cattle in central Florida.

Meet the 6th, 7th, and 8th generations of Lightseys to herd cattle in central Florida.

A Life-Changing Event

The reach of the Lightsey’s ranch wasn’t always this expansive. When Cary was in his early 20s, his father passed away unexpectedly without a will. He and his brother Layne took over the family ranch and discovered they owed estate taxes in the amount of $1.3 million, which at the time was more than the value of their land. Cary moved into a trailer and eliminated all of his unnecessary expenses. During this time, he and his wife, Marcia planted and harvested a personal, 1-acre vegetable garden, kept chickens, and ate a lot of pork from the wild hogs they had on their land.

“We did what we had to do,” says Marcia. “We knew this would be our lifestyle for a while.” Cary and Layne created new financial opportunities, including the citrus farming and the commercial hunting ventures. Cary contracted with other farmers to clear their land or to fly an airplane—he’s also a licensed pilot—on nighttime patrols of their property. After 8 disciplined years, the Lightseys paid off the debt from the tax.

Learning from experience, Cary and Layne made their own estate planning a top priority. Today, the farm’s value nearly reaches $53 million, and about 70 percent of their land is in a limited liability partnership. “We have estate planning for the next two generations of our family,” says Cary.

Cary thinks his spirited 5-year-old granddaughter Hattie Mae will one day take over the farm.

Cary thinks his spirited 5-year-old granddaughter Hattie Mae will one day take over the farm.

Lightsey’s Enduring Legacy

Even after being named 2009’s Southeastern Farmer of the Year (see box at right), Cary is always quick to credit his entire family for the success of the farm. He met his wife, Marcia, in their high school art class (she helped him write his speech when running for Florida state FFA president). They’ve been married almost 40 years, and Marcia (Florida’s 2009 Woman of the Year in Agriculture) handles all of the Lightsey Cattle Company’s bookkeeping.

Their oldest daughter, Lori, helps run the computer aspect of their business, including online cattle sales. Their son Clint works right beside Cary and remarkably knows everything about all 7,000 head of cattle. Marcia calls Leigh Ann, their youngest, “our career girl.” Although, she has a non-Lightsey marketing job, Leigh Ann and her husband always help work the Lightsey cows. Each of Cary and Marcia’s three children and seven grandchildren help manage their own herds, making them the seventh and 8 generations of Lightsey cattle ranchers in this part of the state.

Cary admits that the business would not be what it is without his brother Layne. The men are equal partners. Marcia contends she doesn’t know another relationship that runs so smoothly.

“They’ve never had a cross word, which is unusual with brothers,” she says. While Cary handles all the cattle business and looks out for the land (fertilization processes, for example), Layne’s expertise lies in mechanics and structural design. He tinkers with and maintains every piece of machinery and designs, welds, and builds various structures on the property.

During the Farmer of the Year application and interviews, Cary kept using the word “we” instead of “I,” because he refused to shoulder all of the credit for the farm’s success. Cary finally accepted the singular nature of the award. No Lightsey will be surprised, however, if Layne is nominated for the same award a few years from now.

When the family is working together, Cary pays particular attention to his 5-year-old granddaughter Hattie Mae. “She already knows cattle and how to act and react to them at the gates,” he says. “And if I don’t let her work the sliding gate to keep them moving down the alley way, then she gets mad. I can see her taking the whole thing over one day.”

One of Cary’s greatest gifts is his ability to give equal focus to his heritage and his future legacy.

“My forefathers expected us—my generation—to respect the land,” he says. “And ever since I was young, I wanted to have a family, and my theory was always that we’re only borrowing this land for our children and grandchildren for a while, and it’s our responsibility to take care of it for them.”