For Carlos and Sara Ramirez, only 88 of the nearly 17 million acres of privately-owned forests in Florida really matter.
Those 88 acres are the ones that the couple is nursing back to glory with their own hands, one tree at a time.
Veterans find a new career on the land
Two years ago, Carlos, Special Forces-retired, and Sara, an Air Force Captain, became the owners of a loblolly pine forest in Milton, Florida. It’s a new adventure for the couple. Sara grew up in the suburbs of Massachusetts and Carlos grew up in Puerto Rico. Neither were raised caring for trees or working the land.
“We’ve both always had a love of nature. With Sara close to retirement and after years of moving around the country for work, we knew we wanted a homestead with a lot of acreage,” said Carlos.
“The decision to buy a forest rather than farmland was mostly a matter of economics,” he said. “We were able to buy nearly 90 acres of forest land with the money we had budgeted. Plus, Sara and I both like to hunt, and our property is perfect for that.”
Steep learning curve
Contrary to popular belief, tending to forests takes time, knowledge and planning.
Statistics show only 3 percent of forest owners have a written management plan, and only 16 percent have sought management advice. Carlos and Sara pride themselves in being part of those two small statistics – they have been proactive in learning all they can about every aspect of timberland ownership.
“When we purchased the land, it became apparent an invasive vine called Yaupon Holly had overtaken the loblolly pines,” said Carlos. “Dealing with that has been our biggest battle, not to mention working with sandy soil and how to improve the soil condition. It’s a never-ending education.”
“We didn’t want to ruin the growth,” Sara said, “or cut the timber for pasture. We’re doing our best to bring it back to good health and add to it.”
A strong partner in Farm Credit
As Carlos and Sara have delved into the business, they’ve realized just how much capital it requires. Carlos started doing outside consulting for the military and Sara continues her military logistics job. Like many beginning farmers, they do so to help with their cash flow. Sara and Carlos have also found a great ﬁnancial partner in Jack Hittinger, a rural lending expert with Farm Credit of Northwest Florida.
“We looked at other lenders, but we were just so impressed by the humble, no frills people at Farm Credit. After we left, Sara immediately said ‘this is the place.’ There wasn’t a thing that we asked for that we didn’t get,” Carlos said. “From our first loan request to the terms of that loan. We were even able to use the timber as part of the collateral. They were really accommodating.”
When the Ramirezes decided to buy the land, they had planned to do it all with cash. But after talking with Jack, they realized the best ﬁnancial move for them was to ﬁnance the property. When the time came for Sara and Carlos to make an offer on the land, they felt unsure about what price was fair and sought advice from Jack.
“He took the time to look up some purchase history and realized we might be able to offer less,” Carlos said. “We went in a lot lower, they countered, and then accepted our offer. Jack gave us the courage to negotiate.”
For Jack, supporting customers like Carlos and Sara is what makes his job worthwhile. “Sara and Carlos were very astute in their approach to negotiating a purchase price” said Jack. “I think going the extra mile is what makes customers want to come back and continue to do business with us. Ag lending is very much a relationship business.”
Sara has noticed that Jack’s helpful attitude is shared by the whole Farm Credit team. “These are professionals who will walk you through things you don’t understand. We felt we were asking dumb questions, but Farm Credit never made us feel that way,” she said. “Through the whole process, Jack and the staff were extremely patient with explaining everything.”
“Carlos and Sara are very good ﬁnancial managers,” said Jack. “I think they’re positioning themselves for long-term success with the investment decisions they’ve made.”
24/7 To-Do List
When the couple purchased the forest, there were no structures on it, not even a house. Carlos went to work building a pole barn ﬁrst and today, the building still serves as a “roof” to shelter the RV they currently call home. Someday, they hope to build a homestead on the property and, like the pole barn, the couple plans to build it themselves.
“We didn’t, and still don’t, have the money to pay someone else to do things. Building structures, clearing land, building a new road - we’re doing it all ourselves,” Carlos said. “Our next big task will be building our home. I’m very particular about how the work should be done, so I’d rather do it myself.”
“Recently, when Sara was deployed for ﬁve months, I took advantage of the time by starting to work at sunup and working way past sundown,” said Carlos. “With her away, there was just no reason to put the tools down.”
But now, with Sara back home, the pair is focused on how their yet-to-be-named operation will evolve. “We got our ﬁrst 19 chicks and have been learning ‘on the job’ about caring for them correctly,” said Sara. “Gardening will also be one of my retirement projects. I want to plant peach, pear and apple trees and a couple of citrus trees, plus a vegetable garden. I’m in the research stage right now; it all takes time.”
“We’re also intending to buy a herd of blackbelly sheep once our pastures are ready,” said Carlos. “The idea of silvopasture is to let the pines, pasture and livestock work together in mutually beneﬁcial ways.”
As to the future, the couple is looking forward to Sara’s retirement, which will allow her more time to plant her garden and work beside Carlos on their property. Then there’s the next generation to think about. The couple’s daughter, 18-year old Amanda, has also fallen in love with the land.
“Amanda is planning to attend the University of Florida at Gainesville and major in
agriculture,” said Carlos. “She’s very excited about the idea of being a part of our land in the future. Knowing this drives me 100 percent. Even while completing the most mundane tasks like ripping out weeds or seeding, the future is always on my mind.