How a religious organization became Florida’s largest private landowner 27, 2024

By Jennifer Torres

Over the course of 70 years, one religious organization has amassed massive quantities of private land in Florida.

Boasting a vast portfolio, spanning 678,000 acres throughout the state, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon church, has become the largest landowner in the state, possessing nearly 2% of Florida’s total land mass.

Like most religious organizations that depend on donations and contributions to thrive, each year the Mormon church collects an estimated $7 billion in contributions from its members.

While many churches invest in stocks, bonds or mutual funds to grow their financial resources, as the wealthiest religious organization in the country, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accumulates real estate.

In addition to office towers, shopping centers and warehouses, the church particularly likes to acquire farmland, ranches and timberlands.

As one of the country’s largest real estate investors, the church owns about 1.7 million acres of land and property across the United States, valued at nearly $16 billion. In addition to Florida, the church also owns more than $100 million in property in California, Utah, Oregon and Nebraska.

Why is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints buying so much land in Florida?

According to the church’s website, the 15th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Gordon B. Hinckley, best explained the congregation’s motivation to buy land.

“We have felt that good farms, over a long period, represent a safe investment where the assets of the Church may be preserved and enhanced,” Hinckley said. “While at the same time they are available as an agricultural resource to feed people should there come a time of need.”

The ideals of self-sufficiency and resilience are embedded in the fabric of the church’s mission and they view their agrarian pursuits as a pathway to personal empowerment — with agriculture seen as a prime investment that reflects a commitment to fostering sustainability.

In an interview with Florida Trend in 2013, Charles Pattison, policy director at 1000 Friends of Florida, said church representatives conveyed the importance of farming and other agricultural pursuits to the Mormon philosophy of economic self-reliance.

“This was philosophically something that was important to the church,” Pattison said. “To have a reliable source of food and fiber production going forward.”

What land does the church own in Florida?

With the desire to provide for its growing membership, in 1947, Henry Moyle, a high ranking member of the church, proposed the idea of establishing a cattle ranch in Florida that would serve as an agricultural investment and a resource to feed people in times of need. A few years later he acquired the first parcels of Florida farmland that would later become Deseret Ranch.

Deseret Ranch

A cattle pasture within the 295,000 acre ranch.Photo courtesy of Deseret Ranches

Today the ranch, which is located about 50 miles from Orlando, spans across Osceola, Orange and Brevard counties in central Florida. It includes citrus groves, vegetable farms and cattle pastures, encompassing approximately 295,000 acres, that in 2017, had an estimated value of around $1 billion.

Looking toward the future, The Guardian reported that the church has considered transforming a large portion of the land into a new city that could be home to as many as 500,000 people by 2080.

By establishing a sustainable food reservoir and bolstering financial reserves, agriculture has assumed a pivotal role in fortifying the church against adversities, Between 2013 and 2014, the church procured an additional 383,000 acres in Florida’s Panhandle region for $562 million.

More recently, in 2023, the church purchased six warehouses encompassing more than a million square feet of space in Miami-Dade County for $174.3 million.

Worldwide, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints currently has more than 17 million members, with 6.7 million in the U.S. — and around 168,000 members in Florida.

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