Start making decisions early in life, and follow through

Henry, George and Bear Kempfer, Kempfer Cattle Ranch – Deer Park, Florida

Feature | 10 November 2020
Henry, George and Bear loved growing up on their family’s sprawling cattle ranch which taught them the value and importance of hard, honest work. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“Like I was telling you,” said Henry Kempfer as he climbs into his pick-up truck, “my Mom's family is in the ranching business as well. So we'd get our work done here and then we'd always go spend time with Mom's family.”

For 120 years, the Kempfer Family Ranch of Deer Park, Florida, has been keeping a cattle ranching tradition alive and thriving. And the tradition renews itself, every generation.

“At three or four years old, as soon as we are old enough, we got on a horse” says Henry Kempfer, speaking for his twin brother George and brother Bear. “It’s all we ever knew and it’s all we ever wanted to do.”

The Kempfers raise cattle on around 25,000 acres of the same prairie country at the headwaters of the St. John’s River their ancestors first put together back in the late 1880s. Getting the next generation involved and committed is part of what has kept the ranch together for more than a century.

“We didn’t get paid as kids growing up” Henry explains, “but at the end of every summer you worked you got to pick out a calf. That was better than getting money. You had the beginning of your own herd.” Today, half of the operation’s cows carry brands representing different members of the family, not the company brand.

To keep it all going, Henry says the number one skill is communication. “That’s critical” he says. “To keep a family business together you can’t have secrets. You have to communicate with each other. You’re not always going to be on the same page on everything. Sometimes you have to agree to disagree.”

“We’re very conscious about raising a product that’s even more acceptable to our consumers” says Henry. “But there’s more to it than that. It’s got to be profitable for us. We are always looking at how we can be more efficient, what can save us money or make us money, and still have the right beef quality at the same time.”

In the 17th century, Spanish explorers turned Florida into America's oldest cattle-raising state. These Brahman cattle have a high feed efficiency and are resistant to heat, making them well-suited to central Florida. ILO Photos/ John Isaac.
Over the decades, the Kempfers have seen ranchers who were at the top of their game go out of business because they didn’t want to address changing business conditions with new management systems and technology. For the Kempfers, embracing change is built into their way of doing business. “Don’t be afraid to change” says Henry. “You’ve got to adopt new ways of doing things if you want to stay profitable.”

“When I got out of college 30 years ago I would have never dreamed of the technologies we work with today” says George. “All of our cows have ear tags with computer chips. We don’t have to do it, but we think it should be required all over the country. So many markets today want to know exactly where their beef is coming from.”

The Kempfers met the challenge of rising labor costs by building more fencing. They found they could manage the grass for grazing better with more fences and they didn’t have to employ the large crews they did a few years ago.

And while the cattle ranch in Florida remains the primary business, the Kempfers run a smaller cattle operation in Mississippi where they also sell palm trees, which grow abundantly on their land in Florida. They also run a turf farm to supply the front yards of homes in the booming Florida housing market. They are also in the timber business; the family sawmill operation has been going 40 years.

“That’s the business part of it” says Henry. “Sitting down in the office, hashing out the numbers and running our break-even every year. We’re a diversified operation and we’ve got to crunch those numbers to make sure we hold this place together” says Henry. “Because the bottom line is, even though we love this so much, if it gets to the point in time when we are not making money, we’ve got to change.”

 They are required to keep a sharper eye on environmental regulations today, too. “It’s not like we weren’t doing it before” says Henry. “But we are scrutinized by far more people now.” That means meeting every year with legislators and policy makers, both in the state capitol in Tallahassee and in Washington, DC and advocating for their rights.

Having seen many agricultural families go out of business because the parents didn’t turn it over to the next generation in time, Henry, George and Bear want to make sure the next generation is as invested in continuing the business and the ranching tradition, just as they were raised to be by their own parents and grandparents.

The brothers firmly believe the best way to ensure the operation’s future is giving their kids a say. “One of the things we have been blessed with is our father allowed us to start making decisions early in life” says Henry. “We started being part of the business early on and it’s the same thing for our own children.”

The brothers have encouraged all of their own kids, when they get out of school, to go somewhere else and work for at least a year for someone else. “Just because it’s the way we do it here doesn’t mean it’s the only way” Henry explains. “We want them to go out learn different ways. And they might just learn the way we are doing it here isn’t so bad. And ultimately we feel they’re going to come back.”

Agriculture is a 24/7 job and the Kempfers know that running a family business can be tough on family life. “There’s no way around it” says Henry. “But we always just hash out everybody’s opinion. That’s what makes the world go around and that’s how you get stuff done that needs to be done.”

“Producing beef is our business” says George. “This is not supported by another business. This is our mainstay right here. 

We take a lot of pride in that.” “I would say we are blessed” adds Henry. “We’ve been blessed and fortunate enough to do what we want to do.”