Holding the Reins

Busy Shires Byerly Brings Conservation Expertise to Horse Farms Forever.

Busy Shires Byerly grew up on a horse farm with rolling hills and moss-laden oak trees near Alachua, Florida, where riding her pony through the fields with her mom is one of her happiest childhood memories. As she was growing up, she watched as the scenic countryside was broken into smaller tracts of land and developed. This inspired her to begin a career in land conservation.

After 14 years of land preservation work with Conservation Florida, a statewide non-profit land trust, she founded the Horse Country Protection Program in 2017. The mission of the program was to advocate for policies that would help preserve horse farms and rural agricultural land in Marion County.

During that time, she organized numerous educational workshops and capped the effort with a series of forums with 40 community leaders to discuss the need to protect the rural economy and natural resources from the unintended consequences of unplanned growth.

“Urban sprawl has paved over many of Marion County’s historic horse farms,” notes Byerly. “If we don’t create new growth management policies, they will all be gone 50 years from now.”

In 2018, the horse community was facing an immediate threat—the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) had proposed the Coastal Connector toll road. “The toll road was going to plow through some of the most iconic horse farms in Marion County, including through the middle of the Farmland Preservation Area (FPA),” she recalls. “That was Marion County’s wake-up call.” 

After the 2018 announcement from the FDOT about the proposed route of the toll road, a group of like-minded advocates joined together and formed Horse Farms Forever to raise awareness and education about the importance of horse farms and the FPA. The organization’s original purpose was to stop the route of the toll road through the heart of the horse farms and the FPA. With the strong support of landowners, local businesses, and the Marion County Commission, they accomplished that goal. 

Horse Farms Forever has now taken the leadership role in raising awareness about the important role that horses and horse farms play in the Ocala/Marion County community. The organization is actively monitoring road and development threats to the FPA in coordination with all the community stakeholders.  

In January 2020, Horse Farms Forever and the Horse Country Protection Program joined forces to protect the best of Marion County’s farmland for future generations. “It was a perfect match. Busy is great at creating relationships and bringing people together,” offers Bernie Little, one of the founders of Horse Farms Forever. “She is tenacious and passionate.”

There are many conservation tools that can be used to save farms. Preserving horse farms is primarily about preventing land from being subdivided, which is accomplished with conservation easements. If landowners choose to protect their land with a conservation easement, some landowners qualify for powerful financial incentives such as cash payments for their development rights or income tax incentives. But it also requires proactive growth management policies at the county level.

Lexington-Fayette County, Kentucky has a successful agricultural land program that has protected over 277 farms totaling nearly 30,395 acres. In 2000, Lexington-Fayette County adopted a Rural Land Management Plan, which serves as the guiding document for its rural area.

Under Byerly’s direction, Horse Farms Forever is working with community leaders and landowners to establish a Rural Land Management Plan to help protect the nearly 1,200 horse farms in Marion County. In addition to protecting the land for farms, these new policies hope to protect the horse industry, which contributes over $2.6 billion to the county’s economy and employs more than 20,000 people.

“There is nothing like Marion County in the whole state of Florida,” Byerly adds. “Without horse farms, there are no horses, and Ocala would look like any other city. Horse Farms Forever is dedicated to preserving the horse farms, our irreplaceable soils, and especially the FPA to ensure that what makes our community unique is protected.”

This effort will require sustained leadership, and Horse Farms Forever has emerged as a strong and natural leader to Hold the Reins.

To learn more and get involved, visit www.horsefarmsforever.com 

Conservation Summit
Date: To Be Determined

This fall, Horse Farms Forever will hold a Conservation Summit for community leaders in partnership with the American Farmland Trust (AFT). Billy Van Pelt, II, AFT Senior Director of External Relations, will be the keynote speaker. He will present the “State of the States” report about the loss of prime agricultural lands, not only in Florida, but also across the southeast.

This summit will also be a call to action for community leaders. The goal is to move forward with developing new growth management policies in Marion County to protect the horse farms, agricultural lands and unique natural springs that are fundamental to the allure and brand of Marion County.

A focus group will be held after the summit to discuss how other communities have developed long-range plans that balance economic development with protecting agricultural lands and quality of life.

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