Cattle rancher, citrus grower and real estate investor C. Dennis Carlton has made a big impact in the city of Tampa and nearby parts of Florida. As result of his success, he is the Florida state winner of the 2014 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award.

A rancher for 40 years, his farming interests include more than 35,000 acres, of which 30,082 acres are rented and some 5,368 acres are owned.

Carlton joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 14 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

His operation includes two large ranches. Carlton & Carlton Ranch has cattle in five different counties, and Audubon Ranch has cattle in two counties. His pastures cover 34,680 acres spread out through six counties. He produces irrigated citrus on 359 acres yielding 338 boxes of fruit per acre last year. He also leases out 183 acres of irrigated strawberries.

His citrus fruit is processed for juice and most is marketed through Florida’s Natural Growers, a cooperative. He markets cattle several ways. He sends calves to New Mexico to be raised on grass. He ships most of his calves during the early fall. He either retains ownership through finishing, or he places them in the Producers Equity Participation (PEP) program. PEP is available to select ranches, and participants share in gains or losses through the finishing phase. Double vaccination produces healthy calves and helps qualify his cattle for PEP.

In the summer, most of his calves are sent to Great Plains Feed Yard under the PEP program. Lightweight calves are sent in the fall to Mississippi, the Texas Panhandle or North Florida where they are grazed.

He has planted hundreds of oak trees to provide pasture shade. He is replacing bahiagrass with Jiggs bermudagrass. Jiggs is easy to establish and grows well under Florida conditions. He’s also exploring center pivot irrigation. “This is unusual for our part of Florida,” he explains. “Our first pivot is being installed to water our winter annuals. If this proves to be cost effective, we can expand the pivots to other locations using existing wells.”

In past years, he owned a hauling company to deliver wet citrus pulp to feed to his cattle and to other beef customers. He closed this business when the juice plant closed down. So he refocused his winter feeding program and now relies on hay, fortified molasses, dry feed, along with some produce crops, cull potatoes, cabbage and corn husks.

Citrus has been a good crop over the years, but it has been challenging, with freezes during the 1980’s, replanting during the 1990’s, low prices after the year 2000, then a disease called citrus canker, followed by a new disease called greening. Greening may lead to its demise as a major agricultural enterprise in Florida.

As a result, Carlton converted some of his citrus land to irrigated strawberries leased to a California grower. Earlier this year, he hosted Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Krysta Harden to discuss the threat of greening to Florida citrus.

Carlton protects the environment. He converted 1,200 acres of phosphate-mined land to productive pastures and wetlands. For the strawberries, he developed a system to use lake water to spray over the berry plants to prevent freeze damage. He says this conserves water by keeping limited groundwater supplies from being used for freeze protection.

Carlton constantly looks to expand his cattle business. In 2013, he expanded the Audubon Ranch by leasing an additional 2,000 acres near Dade City, Fla.

The son of a doctor, Carlton was raised in Tampa. As a child, he raised rabbits and chickens and grew corn in his backyard. He sold the rabbits to local hospitals for use in pregnancy tests.  His cousin Doyle Carlton was a rancher, state senator and a mentor. Dennis started farming on his own by renting 55 acres and buying 19 cows in 1974, the same year he started in real estate. He now runs Mid-State Realty Company, Inc., from his Tampa office.  Revenue generated from his real estate brokerage and land sales allowed his agricultural operations to expand.

One of his hobbies involves his family in showing and competing with Appaloosas at horse events. “I wanted to grow up to be a cowboy,” says Carlton. “A good day for me is riding my horse and moving cattle.”

“We have built a large operation,” he says. “The Lord blessed us and helped us create family roots. We all love the outdoors. The land we own and work allows us to live close by, to work together and to worship together.”