Rancher: 'This thing's a game'

08/21/2005 5:15 PM

02/28/2008 5:17 PM

For an old-time rancher like Clarence Bear, South Florida is a lousy place to raise cows.

The soil lacks nutrients, forcing him to haul around 50-pound bags of feed and plastic pails stuffed with bread. Only the hardiest cows fetch more at market than it costs to feed them. Open pasture is scarce.

So what keeps Bear and his 74-year-old knees trudging out to his herd every day?

Nostalgia. And free grass.

A state law aimed at preserving farmland allows developers to save millions in tax dollars by making deals with ranchers to graze cows until the bulldozers come. All Bear has to do to use their land is mow the pasture and maintain the fences.

"They get their agricultural exemption, I get free grass, " Bear said. "That's telling it pretty straight."

The arrangement allows Bear to indulge his affection for ranching. But even he says developers and speculators are exploiting the tax program.

"This thing's a game. Always has been since I've been here, " he said. "They go to market and buy the skinniest cows they can find, just to use for the tax break. I think it's just a hoax, basically."

The son of a rancher also named Clarence has been around cows "for as long as I could see."

He thought his cow days were over two decades ago, when he and his wife left their 380-acre spread in northwest Illinois for retirement in Florida.

"The interesting part is I got to missing those cows, " Bear said. "It's either disease or addiction, I guess."

So in 1990, he started to breed a new herd. He moves the cows when construction forces him to, staying one step ahead of the development that inevitably replaces the pastures he leases throughout Broward County. His herd is scattered among five different spots.

During a recent tour in his '87 Ford pickup, he is wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, plaid shirt and cowboy boots. White sideburns crawl down his face. He is missing teeth.

Bear wades out among the cows, whose rich coats are the color of caramel and dark chocolate. He hugs their thick necks, smacks their flanks, and hollers at them to shoo when they get in his way.

He winces when he thinks about development overtaking South Florida, even though he himself operates a backhoe on construction sites to earn more money. He has recently had to move his cows off fields in Davie and Southwest Ranches to make way for houses.

Bear has already narrowed his herd from about 200 to 140. Where's the next pasture?

"I don't believe there is a new one, " he said. "When I get down to the last few, I'll just have to put them on the truck and ride off with them, I guess."

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