The largest landowner in Florida may be a surprise to some.
When people think of Florida, it’s likely images of tourists visiting Disney World in Orlando or sunbathing on Miami Beach come to mind. In fact, Orlando, Miami Beach, and Key West, all located in the Sunshine State, are among the top five most popular travel destinations in the world. Miami is the most visited city in the United States.
Thanks to Florida’s year-round comfortable climate, overall low cost of living, beautiful beaches, and lush scenery, it was the second fastest-growing state in the country from 2021-2022. In that same time period, Florida agricultural land increased in value by as much as 9 percent.
With much of the state situated on a peninsula, Florida has the most coastline of any contiguous U.S. state. Its 1,350 miles of coastline rank second after Alaska for the entire country. It has a population of more than 21 million and has the fourth largest economy in the country. The state’s largest industry is tourism, contributing $101.9 billion to Florida’s economy in 2022.
Other notable industries that support Florida’s bustling economy include international trade and agriculture. The state ranks 15 in the country for the most farms. It is responsible for yielding 87 percent of the country’s oranges and 70 percent of citrus overall.
Land in Florida sells for about $30,000 an acre. While almost 30 percent of Florida’s 65,758 square miles are publicly owned, the remaining 70 percent is open for business. The LDS Church has made quietly purchasing land in the state part of its own business.
The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints
The church’s 17 million members span more than 160 countries across the globe. Founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith in western New York, it is informally known as the Mormon church. The faith moved its base to Salt Lake City, UT, after the death of its founder, where it continues to operate its growing, pioneer-era church.
The LDS church may be most well-known for its focus on missionary work. It has the largest full-time missionary force in the world. Young men and women, typically between 18-20 years old, leave home for up to two years on missionary assignments, known as “calls.” The almost 70,000 missionaries who served the church in 2022 baptized close to 200,000 people. Mormon membership swelled by 26 percent just that year.
Another tenant of LDS teaching is a concern for being prepared for adverse times in the future. The church teaches its faithful to prepare for “longer-term needs” by building a three-month supply of food, storing drinking water, building a store of longer-term food like wheat that can last 30 years, and saving a financial reserve.
It is this focus on preparing for lean times that the LDS church uses to explain its often-criticized, accumulated wealth. The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) fined the Mormon church and its investment firm, Ensign Peak Advisors, $5 million for obscuring the size of its $100 billion holdings.
The SEC also suggested that the church hid a sizeable proportion of its assets by creating “shell companies” that made it look as though Ensign Peak’s holdings were more modest. A shell company is an entity that can deflect attention from another company’s activities.
A sizeable share of the Mormon church’s investments is held in real estate. The difficulty, however, in determining just how much property the church owns is that it operates under hundreds of unique entity names. For this reason, exact figures for how much property the Utah-based church owns in the United States and across the globe vary according to the source.
The Largest Landowner In Florida
The LDS church started buying up land in Florida in 1950 when it purchased Deseret Ranch in central Florida. The 50,000-acre investment has since expanded to almost six times its original size. Its current size is about 290,000 acres, making it nine times the size of San Francisco and almost 20 times the size of Manhattan.
Its size makes it the most massive ranch in Florida. According to Deseret Ranch’s website, it “has created a vibrant, world-class operation for beef cattle, citrus, and timber, while carefully managing for the long-term viability of wildlife populations.” The property is home to an incredible 40,000 cows.
In 2015, however, officials approved the Ranch Sector Plan. The plan would transform close to 100,000 acres of Deseret Ranch’s property into a new urban landscape. What could eventually be home to as many as 500,000 people has caused concern for conservation groups whose efforts to establish a north-south ecological corridor for wildlife were dashed when the plan was approved.
“This is not a typical housing development. It is an entire region of Florida — and the last remaining wilderness,” the Guardian newspaper reported.
The fact that the ranch’s website reports that it is owned by Farmland Reserve, Inc. further demonstrates the difficulty in tracing properties back to the LDS church. The website does, however, indicate the ranch is “related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
AgReserves, Inc.’s Land Purchase Makes the LDS Church Florida’s Biggest Landowner
It was the church’s 2013 purchase of 382,000 acres in the Florida Panhandle, however, that pushed its holdings above any of the other Florida land heavyweights. AgReserves, Inc., a church-owned company, bought the agricultural and timber land from the St. Joe Co. for $565 million.
At its peak, the Tampa Bay Times reported, the St. Joe Co. owned more than a million acres in Florida. After the sale, it was down to 184,000. That amount of land doesn’t even put the company in second place among the Sunshine State’s land titans. Foley Timber and Land Company sits in second place, with 562,000 acres, trailing the LDS church by more than 100,000 acres.
A Safety Net Of Land In Florida
Iconic church leader, Gordon Hinckley, underscored the importance of owning farmland to the long-term mission of the faith. “Good farms, over a long period,” he said, “represent a safe investment where the assets of the church may be preserved and enhanced.”
Judging by the imposing reach of its land holdings in Florida, the church plans to use Florida to ensure its “safe investment.” Hinckley once said their land in the Sunshine State will be “available as an agricultural resource to feed people should there come a time of need,” the New Miami Times reported.
Mormon Roots In Florida
There are 164,558 Mormons living in Florida, according to Wisevoter. That number makes Florida the state with the eighth highest LDS population in the country. Utah takes the number one spot with a population of more than one million church members. Next comes California, Idaho, Arizona, Texas, Washington, and Nevada respectively.
LDS faithful make up 1.7 percent of the total U.S. population and just 1 percent of Florida’s population. The state is home to two Mormon temples, 282 congregations, and four missions.
The Largest Landowner In Florida Is At Least Fifth In The Nation
Truth & Transparency Foundation
In 2022, the Truth & Transparency Foundation released a list that identified a nearly 16,000-parcel collection of 1.7 million acres owned by LDS church firms. That amount makes the Mormon church the fifth largest landowner in the nation. The list, though incomplete, shows church lands in every state valued at a low estimate of $16 billion.
The foundation gathered the data from a digital shifting of public property records in all U.S. counties. It found that the Mormon church’s property empire includes meetinghouses, temples, office towers, shopping centers, residential skyscrapers, cattle ranches, farmland, and timberland.
“Taken together, church properties on the Truth & Transparency list would cover about 1.3 million football fields, spread over at least 3,120 cities and towns and sparser rural areas in all 50 states and the District of Columbia,” the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
The Salt Lake Tribune went on to report that scholarly research found that, outside the United States, the LDS church owns “large reserves of land in Britain — of a size rivaling the royal estate — along with massive acreages in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia.”
Check out this interactive map that identifies LDS church real estate holdings.
The Truth & Transparency Foundation is not the only group attempting to sort out the obscure investment holdings of the Mormon church. Another organization, Widow’s Mite, is a volunteer collaboration that seeks to “compile, link, reconcile, and analyze all known sources of Church financial information” by relying only on public information in an effort to “increase basic understanding” of the LDS church, according to its website.
Widow’s Mite claims its investigation found an even higher estimate of LDS church real estate holdings than the Truth & Transparency report. Through its own research, Window’s Mite reports that the church owns at least 2.3 million acres of land in the United States. That amount would make the Mormon church the second largest private landowner in the country after the Emmerson Family.
This report broke all church real estate holdings into six categories with a combined estimated value of $102 billion:
- Ecclesiastical buildings and sites — $59 billion
- Known ranches and farms — $12 billion
- Brigham Young Universities — $10 billion
- Commercial & residential buildings — $6 billion
- Missions — $2 billion
- Other property investments — $13 billion
Widow’s Mite says it analyzed public data, checked two professional real estate databases, and reconciled many disconnected sources related to LDS church finances to compile this data. Because its analysis must rely on certain assumptions due to the lack of clarity around the church’s finances, the organization provides a range with its estimates. The low estimate of nationwide LDS church real estate assets is $44 billion, while the high estimate is $121 billion.
The report lists hundreds of unique entity names used by the Mormon church for its real estate holdings. It also provides a detailed list of sources for all the information it presents.
The Largest Landowner In Florida Owns A Lot of Land
By any standards, the LDS church owns a ridiculous amount of land. Its Deseret Ranch and AgReserves properties make it the largest landowner in Florida. Beyond the Sunshine State, the church owns enough real estate to rank as at least one of the top five landowners in the country. In fact, Truth & Transparency believes the Mormon church “has the most valuable private real estate portfolio in the U.S.”
Source: AZ Animals