A Greater Good

A Greater Good

Michelle Stagner Offers Glimpse Into How White Horse Ranch CARES

by PAUL CATALA

Since the first horses and cows took up temporary residence on the ranch’s 80-plus acres situated not far from Lakeland’s moderate urbanization of subdivisions, schools and stores, Michelle Stagner has worked hard to be sensitive – environmentally, that is.

Walking through the horse stables that make up part of White Horse Ranch Venue & Boarding in Lakeland, Stagner likes to point out the amenities, the improvements, the innovations and the touches that have helped her become known for outstanding care for her clients’ animals and dedication to the land and environment around her. 

Opened in 1998, White Horse Ranch started as a horse boarding ranch and has since also become one of Lakeland’s most renowned outdoor venues for private parties, meetings, banquets, bridal showers, engagement parties and other social events. 

Besides horses, the ranch is also a working cattle and commercial calf operation. 

This past summer, Stagner, 56, was notified by Tricia Hobson — an environmental specialist with Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Office of Agricultural Water Policy — White Horse Ranch was a recipient of a 2019 County Alliance for Responsible Environmental Stewardship (CARES) award. That Florida Farm Bureau Federation program was created in 2001 to recognize Florida farmers and ranchers who show exemplary efforts to protect Florida’s natural resources by implementing Best Management Practices (BMPs).

Recipients are awarded a CARES designation in the form of a sign, showing the producer’s commitment to protecting Florida’s environment. 

During a recent weekday at the ranch, Stagner takes time from her ranch workday to discuss what she thinks makes White Horse Ranch such a great environmental steward. 

Sitting in the ranch office, Stagner — a Lakeland native and 1981 graduate of Kathleen High School – says much of the CARES award is based on her innovation and ability to contain horse manure products on the ranch. She says as a “big tree hugger and a big environmentalist,” she and her staff try to recycle as much as possible.

“With the manure, we use it to compost in organic soil to reprocess for around the ranch,” she says. “We also limit the use of chemical sprays and keep our cattle and horses out of natural water areas.”

To be CARES eligible (the program is voluntary), a farmer or rancher must: 

  • Sign a Letter of Intent with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ (FDACS) Office of Agricultural Policy (OAWP) to implement Best Management Practices (BMPs).  
  • Implement FDACS BMPs on their farm or ranch for a specified duration.  
  • Have an FDACS OAWP staff member verify the producer is properly following the planned BMPs.
  • Commit to implementing BMPs as part of a regular part of a ranching or farming operation with an environmental stewardship plan.
  • Get contact from FDACS staff who contacts the Farm Bureau’s CARES Coordinator to give a nomination for the CARES program. 

A few dozen yards from the White Horse Ranch stables, Stagner says she also financially invested in installing a water drainage system to minimize runoff from getting into natural areas. Additionally, she installed a drip irrigation system around the ranch, a micro-irrigation system that saves water and nutrients by having water to drip slowly to the roots of plants, either from above or below the soil surface – all part of what Hobson says led to the award.

Hobson also coordinates with the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Facilitating Agricultural Resource Management Systems (FARMS) program and Natural Resources Conservation Service to fund the installation of BMP technologies and equipment for water conservation and nutrient reductions. She says she met Stagner four years ago when Stagner was working to stabilize the drainage ditch and curb soil erosion.

“She’s willing to do and implement anything we ask. She’s very competent and does everything to show how to properly manage horses and livestock in a more urban type area,” she says. “It’s not a large operation, but it’s managed very well.” 

According to the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, since 2001, nearly 800 farm families have been recognized through This Farm CARES for their voluntary efforts to protect Florida natural resources. Through BMPs, CARES farmers and ranchers show commit to protecting and preserving the land, improving water and air quality and adding to freshwater recharge areas and wildlife habitat restoration.

The Bureau’s website states the CARES goal is “to encourage every single farm to be active in voluntary natural resource protection and conservation in order for every Florida farm and ranch to receive a This Farm CARES designation.  By enrolling in BMPs and showing a long-term commitment to BMP implementation, farmers and ranchers may become eligible to receive a ‘This Farm CARES’ designation and sign.”

Cacee Hilliard, CARES coordinator, Agricultural Policy for the Florida Farm Bureau Federation in Gainesville, calls Stagner “an incredible environmental steward.” She says Stagner “single-handedly” worked to fix issues dealing with soil erosion at her ranch.

“We want to help tell her story and show how she tries to protect the environment, protect the land; it’s quite remarkable,” she says.

The This Farm CARES award was also received with some additional help by Stagner’s sons— Beau, 31; Tyler, 29; and Garrett, 25. 

Stagner also runs White Horse Ranch Venue & Boarding with the help of five to six senior volunteers and friends: her ranch slogan is “built from the hands of friendship.” Her foray into ranching and horse boarding began after spending about 15 years with Publix Super Markets Inc. and 13 years self-employed in real estate and mortgages.

As for her continued effort to make White Horse Ranch as ecologically and environmentally conforming as possible in the future, Stagner says she’ll maintain her efforts in BMPs as she continues her current operations and rebuilds her cattle herd. She says while she’s honored to have gotten a This Farm CARES award, her efforts definitely don’t end there.

“I’m just a little ranch that is honored to be among the larger ones, because it shows even the little people can make a difference if they try.”