In the predawn fog, cowboys ride out to the palmetto flatwoods of the 17,000-acre Mabry Carlton Ranch, east of the interstate in Sarasota, to gather up the cattle for the twice-yearly roundup. Before noon, the pens are filled with several hundred bellowing cattle, and after hours of hard, sweaty labor, the crew-including State Senator Lisa Carlton, in jeans and perched on a wooden fence-are ready for the midday meal.
Not only ranch hands but friends, family and neighbors gather for this annual tradition. Visitors bearing flowers and baked goods navigate cow pats as they stroll past the noisy cow pens and into Barbara Carlton’s embrace. Cooking for the workers, explains the family matriarch and 2002 Woman of the Year in Agriculture, harks back to the days of chuck wagons following cowboys as they herded cattle across vast tracts of land.
Joy Smith, the Carltons’ combination cook-nanny-friend, gestures toward sausages on toothpicks and a platter of swamp cabbage fritters-a delicious concoction of flour, cornmeal, Evergaldes seasoning and fresh, chopped hearts of palm-her husband, Jerry, has just fried.
"That’s what we call hors d’oeuvres down here," she quips, lifting a golden brown chicken drumstick from the fryer. "There are also green beans, baked beans, macaroni and cheese, ham, beef stew, black-eyed peas, deviled eggs, banana pudding, pies, cakes and cookies-somebody’s got to feed those cowboys."
Lunch is cooked in the decades-old wooden bunkhouse that just got plumbing and electricity a few years ago, and served under the shade of a spreading mossy oak tree. Eating is a leisurely affair, punctuated by retelling old stories and spinning new yarns, and a few of the cowboys loll around the haystacks-"nooning"-before loading cattle into trucks for market. For generations, the essential elements of their business haven’t changed much.
"Good men, good horses, good dogs," says Charles Brown, a 55-year-old cowboy. He’s only ever missed one cattle roundup here, and that was the year his horse fell on him, breaking his shoulders, ribs and collarbone. He still made it to lunch, though. "Places like this are just about a thing of the past," Brown says.
If the Carltons have their way, this bastion will endure. Lisa and her sister, county judge Kimberly Carlton Bonner, still live on the ranch beside their mother, who babysits and picks up her five grandchildren from school every day. One of the kids, three-year-old Katie Bonner, is frolics around the bales of hay, resplendent in pink cowboy boots.
"Lisa was just like that at that age, full of vinegar, working in the groves," calls out Jim Tollerton, a family friend. "She was in charge even then."
Lisa Carlton laughs, but she’s serious about that sort of continuity. "We have the fourth generation of family growing up here," she says. "I’ve lived in the same house all my life. The future is so uncertain. I hope the industry will continue to thrive and provide a living for the next generation."
Retired physician Chuck Nixon nods in agreement. Nixon grew up on a Georgia farm, and now helps round up cattle twice a month.
"When I go to the beaches and go fishing, I have the time of my life," Nixon says. "But it doesn’t feed my soul like being out east."