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Cattle grazing in early April on land recently leased by Jonah Vandergriff from the City of Eustis.
Cattle grazing in early April on land recently leased by Jonah Vandergriff from the City of Eustis. (Teresa Burney)

It was a deal that should have been made in a barbecue restaurant.

The City of Eustis had some pastureland that was just sitting around, requiring regular mowing and other maintenance.

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Meanwhile, a number of local ranchers were looking for places where their hungry cows could cut the grass. With development booming again, vacant pasture is getting scarcer.

So the City of Eustis put out notice that it would entertain proposals to buy cattle grazing licenses on some 200 acres in Sorrento, outside the Eustis city limits that it formerly used as a spray field for sewage effluent before it started reclaiming the water.

Highlighted in red is the newly leased parcel, located northwest of the intersection of East C.R. 44 and Hicks Ditch Road.
Highlighted in red is the newly leased parcel, located northwest of the intersection of East C.R. 44 and Hicks Ditch Road. (Lake County Property Appraiser)

M.O. Williams of Longwood, a former hobby cattleman who has grown it into a personal business, snapped up a one-year lease on the land, agreeing to pay the city $15,000 for the license and to keep the land in good condition. His lease started last June, and he plans to re-up the contract this year if the city is willing.

"I am always looking for a good place to put cattle on," said Williams. "I've got six other places where I keep cows. (Pastures for grazing) are getting scarcer, that is for sure."

Eustis officials seem happy with the deal as well.

"They are using and maintaining the land and some of that burden is off of us,"
 said Tom Carrino, Eustis' economic director.

Just a few months after buying a new headquarters building, AeroDoor International is expanding its Lake County business.

The only downside of the deal Williams sees is if the city decides to sell the land for development, because it's becoming increasingly difficult to find available pasture land to lock up with long-term leases.

Meanwhile, another part-time rancher, Jonah Vandergriff, who lost out on the bid for the first pasture, asked the city if it would be willing to license another piece of property north of town, east of S.R. 19 and north of S.R. 44. That parcel has 72.5 acres, with a little over 36 acres suitable for grazing.

Eustis recently approved that second cattle license, starting Feb. 15. Vandergriff is paying the city $2,750 a year for that lease and is happy to have it.

The city of Eustis should soon partner with owners of three vacant downtown parcels to market the 4.8 acres of land for redevelopment.

"It was sitting there doing nothing for years, and this helped out the city, it helped out me and my cattle are fat," Vandergriff said. "I'm up there almost every other day" to check on the 25 head of cattle pastured there.

"I asked God to give me some land and he did," he said.

Vandergriff's wife runs the Gotcha Smokehouse Bar-B-Que in Florida Mall, but none of Vandergriff's cattle are served at the restaurant. It needs far more than his gentleman's farmer operation could provide.

He hopes the city will continue leasing the land to him.

"I've got to tell you, doing business with the city was wonderful. They are the friendliest people I have dealt with in life," Vandergriff said.

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