Congratulations Ronnie Stephenson: 2024 Florida Land Steward of the Year

Ronnie proudly displaying his Wildlife Habitat Recognition sign, by Arlo Kane
By Nathan Bunting, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Ronnie Stephenson’s passion for wildlife and his tenacity for hands-on habitat management goes above and beyond what would be expected of one person. Ronnie grew up in the Florida Panhandle where his family owned and managed a couple historic hotels along Panama City Beach. He purchased his Cottondale Farm in 1996 which encompasses 159 acres with 60 acres leased to a local farmer for agricultural purposes, where a portion of the crop is left in the field each year for wildlife. While his children and grandchildren provide occasional help, Ronnie does most of the land management himself. In addition to the Cottondale Farm, Ronnie owns and manages 300 acres on the state line near Grangeburg, Alabama. He states that it’s a seven day a week job, but it is a labor of love.

 

The farms are his passion, and he works on them daily to optimize wildlife habitat through a variety of management activities. Ronnie harvested 14 acres of mature slash pine and reforested to longleaf pine. He has also cleared large areas of heavy brush and hardwoods to create northern bobwhite quail habitat. He is encouraged and proud that the wondrous sounds of the bobwhite have returned to the farm.

 

Ronnie conducts prescribed burns annually to manage the forested areas and wildlife corridors that are adjacent to the agricultural fields. The field edge habitat on his farm is exceptional and provides forage habitat and cover for a multitude of birds and pollinators. Ronnie also has a healthy disdain for invasive species and bolsters his management by treating invasive plants with herbicide, primarily targeting Chinese tallow and cogongrass.

 

Ronnie and his prized persimmon tree, by Nate Bunting

Perhaps Ronnie’s most impressive management practice is the planting of more than 1,000 hard and soft mast trees around the property, solely for the use and benefit of wildlife. He has planted varieties of chestnut, pecan, pear, apple, oak, blueberry, and persimmon. As a talented grower, Ronnie propagated most of the mast trees on his property using his own cuttings and grafting techniques. Some of the Fuyu persimmon trees on the property, which are vigorous fruit producers, were grafted to native persimmon root stock to make them more suitable to the local soils and climate.

 

In addition to the larger scale management activities, Ronnie has created depressions for retaining water at multiple sites that are utilized as supplemental open water sources by wildlife. His property is home to several areas of beautiful cypress dome swamp, and he maintains nine wood duck nesting boxes. He has retained many older dead trees, or snags, on the property and plants small grains and wildflowers in the field margins annually.

 

Ronnie leading a Florida Land Steward Tour in 2022, by Chris Demers

Ronnie seeks out the advice of foresters and wildlife biologists and is willing to share his knowledge with anyone with an interest. In 2022, Ronnie led a Forest Stewardship tour on his property to provide information and give his experience to other landowners about how they can integrate wildlife practices into their forestry operations. He explained multiple grafting and planting techniques for the mast producing trees located on his property. He also shares his expertise and enthusiasm for land stewardship on Winston Chester’s Panhandle Outdoors show. These episodes can be found on their YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/@PanhandleOutdoors.

 

Ronnie with his trusted bird dog enjoying quail hunting on his property

Ronnie enjoys running his bird dogs for bobwhite quail and hunting deer and turkey with his grandchildren. When asked why he works so hard in managing his property, he says, “I have gotten so much enjoyment throughout my life from nature, I just want to give something back.”  He goes further to say that the biggest payoff of all his hard work is to see his grandchildren’s excitement when they are sitting in a tree stand together and a deer or turkey walks by. Ronnie’s tireless contributions to wildlife and habitat management have been an example of dedication and hard work that will expand and inspire the next generation of land stewards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This article is by Nathan Bunting, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

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Posted: February 13, 2024


Category: Conservation, Forests, Invasive Species, Natural Resources, Recreation, UF/IFAS Extension, Water, Wildlife
Tags: Awards, Family Forest, Florida Land Steward Program, Forest Management, Natural Resources, School Of Forest Fisheries And Geomatics Sciences, Wildlife


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