County grant propels growth at local ranch

Raquel Penabella and her family moved from Miami to High Springs three years ago to start raising cattle under their new company―JJ&R Cattle Company.

Now, they’ve got one bull, 13 cows and a small assortment of calves running around their 64 acres of grass, shrub and fencing.

“Usually, it’s not wise to say, ‘OK, just close your eyes and jump in the pool,’” Penabella said. “But it kinda happened like that for us.”

Driving around the property under a heavy amount of Florida sunshine and passing through electric fences, she admits with a laugh that they were city folk, living on a zero acre lot.

In the last few years, her family has learned a lot about their new enterprise.

“So we’ve had a lot of those ‘aha’ moments, and we’re fast learners so that’s one thing,” Penabella said.

Last week, the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners approved grants totaling $10,000 for three small-producer agriculture grants in the area. Then the board added another $100,000 for other farms that applied.

The initial $10,000 formed a pilot program that Commissioner Anna Prizzia requested to fund small, local ranches and farms.

“It’s a focus on capital and equipment, things that can enhance the viability of these very small farming operations,” Sean McLendon, Alachua County’s economic development coordinator, said at last week’s commission meeting.

To receive a part of the grant, farmers and ranchers filled out an application that asked what equipment is needed, its cost, how it will be used, and the economic return.

The grant will allow JJ&R Cattle Company to add a third function to its tractor and buy a stump bucket and grapple. The company bought 40 acres directly behind the property that was used for planted pine groves.

Red tractor sitting under awning

Today, the pine trees are gone, but the stumps remain. Penabella said it looked a bit like a war zone when they first got the land.

With the new equipment, the family can clear the land to accommodate more cattle, hopefully up to 70 head in the next three years.

Penabella applied and then forgot about the grant, not thinking she’d win, but she and one other applicant earned 39 out of 40 points on the applications.

The program also prioritized minority-owned businesses.

Penabella said her family in Cuba raised cattle as well, but since immigrating to Florida, the agriculture gene hadn’t shown up in the family until her daughter.

Her daughter, Jillian, sparked the transition to Alachua County. She began competing in Future Farmers of America shows in 9th grade. Then she attended Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College (ABAC) before graduating from UF in May.

Penabella and her husband liquidated their assets in Miami and moved to the edge of Alachua County, living on the border with Gilchrist County, in order to help their daughter with her career in agriculture.

“To start something like this is not an easy thing because there’s a lot of unknowns, especially since we are just learning ourselves,” Penabella said.

The county received 48 submissions and scored 37 of them. The other 11 had missing information or couldn’t be rated.

With the initial $10,000, the county staff recommended approving the top two applications with partial funding for the third. Those three applicants were Dominic Purcell of Dan Good Farms, Raquel Penabella with JJ&R Cattle Company and Karen Pierce of Sweet Roots Organic Farm.

But with the extra $100,000, the county will fund the application request of everyone who scored above a 30. Opening up money for 23 additional small producers.

“I believe this program was very prescient of the board, and it helps to meet your overall goals for economic development and encouraging local agriculture in the community,” McLendon told the commission.

The farms for the grant only make between $1,000 and $75,000 a year. McLendon told the commission these businesses are often just a couple of thousand dollars from going under.

For the Penabellas, the whole family works outside of JJ&R Cattle Company, and the ranch itself takes a lot of work and money, which they have financed themselves.

“We haven’t gone back to Miami—like we don’t miss it. We don’t,” Penabella said.

The surrounding ranchers have welcomed the family and lent its expertise with the sharp learning curve.

The first year, the family grew grass on the land before it bought any cattle. Penabella said pests razed the freshly fertilized grass, and their first heifer and calf died during birth.

But the reward has been worth it.

“We’re very proud of our little adventure here,” Penabella said.

Raquel Penabella examines cattle beside fence
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