State pays Flagler family to keep farm land


Historic City News learned that Flagler County ranchers Gene and Marilyn Evans farm-raise sturgeon; a fish that produces pure white steak meat and a rare caviar. And now, the state is giving the couple money to keep it that way.

The governor and Cabinet on Tuesday approved a conservation easement for the Evans family that will pay them more than $2.7 million to keep the land away from developers. The state will pony up half of the money, with the St. Johns River Water Management District paying the other half.

This is the state’s first acquisition of a conservation easement through the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program that was passed in 2001.

“This is a great start to keeping lands in agriculture,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson said as the Cabinet signed off on the easement.

Under conservation easements, the government essentially pays a landowner to restrict the use of the land and protect it from certain types of development or use. Without such agreements, many small farmers would sell their land to developers. The easements allow the state to steer the use of certain lands away from development while preserving certain elements deemed important to the community – such as preserving the environmental character of the land or preserving small family farms.

The now protected Evans tract consists of 690 acres of a 1,709 acre piece of property lying in Flagler and Volusia counties, along the south shore of Lake Disston, within the Lower St. Johns River Basin.

The primary use of the property is for the production of sturgeon, for meat and caviar.

According to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, in early 2009, the Evans Ranch became the first in this hemisphere to spawn a sturgeon from egg to egg.

Gene Evans said the family began buying land in the 1980s and began its sturgeon operation in 1999.

“Hopefully, other farmers will get into this,” he said. “There should be an industry where Florida will shine in the long haul. I really see a big future for sturgeon farming.”

Under the agreement, the family would not be able to use the land for signs, billboards, commercial water wells, trash dumping, activities that may affect water conservation or erosion, planting that would spread nuisance exotic or non-native plants or concentrated and confined animal feed lot operations.

The family will, however, still be able to control access of the property and are allowed to sell or transfer the property to another party under certain conditions. They also are allowed to develop eco-tourism of the area.

“We’re going to keep it in agriculture,” Gene Evans said. “We could have sold the property.”