The Melton family’s history of farming and ranching in Pasco County stretches back to 1950, when Jack Melton went to work growing watermelons for a rancher.
Steve Melton, Jack’s oldest son, shared the story of his family’s abiding love for the land during a spring tour of their holdings with a photographer and writer from The Laker/Lutz News.
Over decades, the Meltons have acquired 1,500 acres of farm and pastureland in northeast Pasco County, where Jack and five families of Meltons now make their homes.
“As we could get a little bit of money, we’d buy a little bit of land. We’d owe that money to the bank. We’d get that paid off,” Melton said.
It has been a family affair, he said. It has required the efforts of his dad, Jack, the four Melton brothers — Steve, Johnny, Mark and Joe — and their sister, Becky Worrell.
“This has not been given to us. It was not left to us,” Melton said. “That’s why our heart is in this land because it was through our toil that we paid for it.”
As he drove his pickup truck along bumpy roads, he stopped, occasionally, to show off beautiful views.
“Right over that hill, straight ahead of us, is Dade City. Blanton is over that next hill.
“What’s so remarkable about this is the steep relief in this valley right here —how quickly this drops off.
“You see those towers right there on the next horizon? That’s Trilby and Lacoochee.
“That second tower to the right is the big grain elevator in Lacoochee. You can see a water tower, sometimes, in Webster, from here,” he said.
Throughout the property, there are scenes that capture a sense of Old Florida. There are ancient oaks, tree-canopied roads, and wildflowers bursting with color along the roadsides.
The family’s agricultural operations are varied.
“On our 1,500 acres, we have several hundred head in our cow/calf operation. We raise the calves, and then we have a few lease ranches around, too. That’s a major part of our operation.
“So, we have horses — quarter-horses for working, and working dogs to help pen the cattle,” he said.
The ranch also has cow pens, seed barns, and a shop to repair and maintain equipment.
They grow crops, too
“We’re in the seed-harvesting business.
“We custom harvest this Bahia grass that you see growing out here, throughout all of Central Florida,” Melton said.
He stopped by a field, where rye was growing — as far as the eye could see.
“It looks like a sea wave, when the wind passes through,” Melton said. “In a month, this will be golden waves of grain.
“Sometimes — a very rare occasion — we’ll see clouds of this white pollen, wafting through the field — pollinating all at once,” he added.
Once harvested, the rye is packed into 50-pound bags and sold to ranchers to graze their cattle with in the winter, said Melton. He saves some of the grain to make rye bread.
“People sometimes have an idyllic interpretation of farming, as being Sunday on the front porch and just watching the crops grow,” Melton said.
But, he continued: “Farming is not for the faint of heart.”
Threats to a farmer’s livelihood come in many forms: “Too much rain. Drought. Freezes. And, hurricanes coming — destroying the crops. Then, you have the stress of getting the harvest in,” he said.
COVID-19, which has been raging through Florida, hasn’t had much of an impact on the Meltons’ operations.
“Really, it’s not slowed us down. We hardly know anybody that knows anybody that’s had it,” he said.
“It’s kind of isolated in the country. We’re working outdoors most of the time and (are) not connected with many people,” he added.
Melton attributes his family’s ability to survive — and thrive — to forward-thinking and the ability to adapt.
“My brothers are always thinking, ‘What’s the next thing we can do, that might fill in a gap?’” he said.
When an orange grove was lost, for instance, the family increased its hay production.
Despite hard work and uncertainty, Melton loves what he and his extended family have created.
“It keeps me connected to the land,” he said.
“My dad started the farm and ranch. All of the siblings and myself have helped build it up through the years,” he said.
Now, his brothers, Johnny and Mark, and his five nephews run the operation.
The idea of a third generation continuing the work is gratifying, Melton said.
“This gives us so much encouragement. It carries on the family tradition.
“This is very comforting to know, especially for dad, and for us — that it still has a future,” he said.
Published July 15, 2020