The land shall provide

St. Petersburg Times/January 30, 2004
By Janet Zink

Across the street from the Deseret Farms offices on 19th Avenue NE, construction crews feverishly work on what will soon be a new subdivision.

It's a scene repeated on land surrounding most of the 8,500 acres that comprises Deseret Farms, owned by the Mormon church. That's just what the church hoped would happen when it began buying land in the mid 1980s with plans to sell it to developers as soon as the selling got good.

That time is fast approaching.

The Mormon church, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is the third largest owner of agricultural land in Hillsborough County.

South Hillsborough, where 5,500 acres of the 8,500-acre Deseret Farms are scattered, is about to sprout thousands of new homes. With much of the land already gobbled up by developers, the value of Deseret's properties is soaring.

"We're not pushing the growth," said Gary Reynolds, the farm's manager. "But when the growth is pushing us hard, we will succumb and let it go."

Church leaders already are talking with developers about a 1,000- acre portion of the farm called Wolf Creek Branch in Ruskin.

The gradual sell-off of Deseret Farms, which also includes 3,000 acres in Manatee, Collier and Hendry counties, is part of the worldwide economic engine driven by the Mormon church and fueled by the religion's emphasis on preparedness and belief in the second coming of Jesus. The church's investments also support a welfare system for its members and nonmembers around the world.

Joseph Smith established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints in 1830 in New York. The group tried settling in Ohio, then Missouri, then Illinois, where Smith was murdered. Led by Brigham Young, they finally found a home in the wild West.

In 1849, church leaders tried to create an independent state called Deseret, an Egyptian word for the industrious honeybees admired by early members of the church, Reynolds said. The proposed state would have encompassed much of the southwestern United States with Salt Lake City as the capital. Congress passed on that idea and in 1850 created the Utah territory, where the church is based. Many Mormon enterprises now bear the name Deseret.

To support their community, the Mormons built schools, hospitals and other institutions that eventually were turned over to the public.

"Brigham Young is probably the single most important figure in the economic development and infrastructure between the Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountains," said University of South Florida religious studies professor Danny Jorgensen, who has published several books and articles on Mormonism.

The church also established farms.

The farms allowed the Mormons, who were persecuted for their unconventional practices, to be self-sufficient, Jorgensen said. Farmland also dovetails with Mormon religious principles of preparedness.

The church advises followers to keep at least one year's worth of food and cash on hand in case of emergency, such as unemployment or a natural disaster.

Stockpiling also prepares Mormons for the second coming of Jesus and the accompanying destruction of sinners, which they believe is imminent, Jorgensen said. The ensuing chaos, he said, would require a reserve of food and money to continue functioning.

The church, Reynolds said, follows its own advice by making substantial investments each year.

In 1997, Time magazine put the church's annual investment income at more than $600-million, and valued its farmland and other financial investments at $11-billion.

One of their most significant operations is Deseret Cattle and Citrus, a Florida farm that spans 300,000 acres in Orange, Osceola and Brevard counties. It's among the top half percent of Florida farming operations, said Liz Compton, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture.

In addition to the farmland in south Hillsborough and their church buildings throughout the county, the church owns an office complex west of the Veterans Expressway near Memorial Highway worth $10-million, according to the county property appraiser.

The 5,500 acres the church owns in Hillsborough makes it the third largest owner of agricultural land in the county. Phosphate giant IMC Agrico is No. 1 with 23,000 acres; the 10,000-acre Hickory Hills ranch in Thonotosassa is No. 2; and TECO, with 4,100 acres, is fourth.

The church pays taxes on all its Florida investments; only property used for commercial ventures is exempt.

Farmland, Reynolds said, offers more than just monetary value.

"If stocks become worthless, you can always grow wheat on a piece of land and be able to eat," Reynolds said. "These farms are part of the church's savings accounts."

Ultimately, though, agricultural land is simply a good investment because it generates income and appreciates substantially in high- growth areas.

The Hillsborough County farmland easily could command $110- million from buyers who want to build houses and commercial buildings on it, said Tim Wilmath, director of valuation for the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office. Fifteen years ago, that land probably would have gone for about $40-million, Wilmath said.

Immediately after buying the Wolf Creek Branch property, a 1,000- acre tract at the northwest corner of 19th Avenue NE and Interstate 75, the church sought approval to develop it even though there were no immediate plans to do so. In 1990, the county granted approval for more than 2,000 single-family homes; 1,200 multifamily units; 250,000 square feet of commercial space; and 100,000 square feet of offices.

With residential development closing in on the property, conversations have begun with developers, Reynolds said, and construction might begin there in the next year or two.

In the meantime, Deseret Farms raises tomatoes, oranges and beef cattle and operates a tomato packing plant. A harvesting company pays to pick Deseret oranges, which are used for juice. The beef cattle is a fairly small business, Reynolds said, with only about 450 animals. Some of them graze on land just outside the Mormon church on 12th Avenue NE in Ruskin.

About one-quarter of the farm's 50 full-time employees are Mormon, including Reynolds, 51, who earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural economics from Brigham Young University and has been working for Mormon farming operations for the past 20 years.

Another 100 or so seasonal workers plant, pick and pack tomatoes. Deseret produces about 1.5-million boxes of tomatoes a year; most go to Northern states where they're sold to food service companies.

The Mormon-owned farms are clearly big moneymakers.

But they're not there just to turn a profit.

They stock storehouses throughout the United States and Canada, including one in Orlando, with powdered milk, canned goods and grain. There, church members can get food and clothing if they hit hard times.

Donations also have been made to Africa, and Reynolds, who holds a regional leadership position with the church, went last year with a supply of food to southeast Asia.

Deseret Farms doesn't send any of its products to the storehouses or overseas, Reynolds said, but it serves as a backup if any of the other farms stop operating.

After Hurricane Andrew ravaged Florida, Reynolds said, Deseret Farms sent backhoes and front-end loaders to help with the cleanup.

"We participate however we can," he said.

According to Reynolds, not all of the land owned by the Mormon church, including much of the Hillsborough County property, is slated for development.

"These farms are part of the church's savings accounts," Reynolds said.

Getting rid of all of the land would leave nothing for that rainy day, said Jorgensen, the religion professor.

"Mormons are incredibly pragmatic people," he said. "Good religion and good investments go together for them."

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