Lillie “Belle” Jeffords was one of Florida agriculture’s most beloved and effective ambassadors. She was totally committed to the advancement of Florida’s cattle industry and had the energy, enthusiasm, and natural leadership skills to make good things happen for Florida’s farmers and ranchers. Dynamic, tenacious, and downright feisty, Jeffords fought fiercely to protect and preserve her way of life. She was determined to wring everything she could from each day. She did it all—and she did it all well. Her farm produced record yields, she brought up four wonderful daughters, and she rose from humble beginnings to become a powerful and trusted leader in her industry and her community.
Farming was in Jeffords’ blood. She was born in rural Columbia County in 1924 into a large farming family. The 12th of 13 children, she grew up working in the fields alongside her parents and her brothers and sisters. The family didn’t own a tractor and did everything by hand or with the help of a mule. This hard work prepared Jeffords for the challenges that lay ahead.
Life was difficult. By the time Jeffords was 15, both her parents had died and she was pretty much on her own. She moved in with her high school principal and his wife, caring for their young children after school to earn her keep. By 16 she had dropped out of school, and by 17 she was married. Her husband, Roy, was a farmer in Alachua, and when Jeffords became his wife, she also became a partner on the farm.
In the early days of their marriage, Roy and Belle Jeffords farmed peanuts, tobacco, hay, and watermelons. Later, they shifted their focus to beef. In 1959 they received a corn production award—they were the top un-irrigated corn producers in Alachua County. Things were going well. Then, in 1960, tragedy struck. Roy died suddenly, following a short illness, and Jeffords was left with four young daughters to raise and a farm to run.
Despite a family dispute over the ownership of the land and her own medical problems, Jeffords clung to the farm. She farmed up to 500 acres with the help of just one hired man, C.B. Freeman. The hard work paid off; the farm was successful. In 1971 Jeffords and Freeman received a Two-Ton Peanut Production Award from the Florida Cooperative Extension Service.
Jeffords approached motherhood with the same kind of passion and energy she put into farming. She became a Girl Scout leader and was active in the Parent Teacher Association. As her children left home, she expanded her sphere of influence, becoming involved in a wide range of industry groups and civic organizations.
She was a member of the Alachua County Cattlemen’s Association and the first woman ever elected president of that organization. In 1982 she became president of the Florida CowBelles’ Association (now known as Florida Cattlewomen). She served on the Florida Soil and Water Conservation Board and the Alachua County Green Belt Task Force and was a member of the Florida Woman’s Club. In addition, she was a poll worker in Alachua County for nearly 30 years.
Jeffords was an unflagging promoter of the cattle industry. She was also a vigorous grassroots campaign organizer and political activist for her farm and her industry. She fought for property rights and fair taxation and against undo government regulation, which she feared would cripple agriculture. She organized the first Florida Beef Cook-off, which has since become a major beef promotion event. As district chairman of the state Beef Referendum Committee, she traveled across Florida urging cattlemen to support the Beef Check-off Program, which was passed in 1988.
Jeffords’ leadership in agriculture won her numerous awards and honors. In 1980 she was named Cattlewoman of the Year by the Florida Cattlemen’s Association. She received an Outstanding Service Award from the Alachua County Cattlemen’s Association in 1982 and was made an honorary member of the University of Florida’s Block and Bridle Club in 1985. In 1989 the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services named Jeffords Woman of the Year in Agriculture.
Belle Jeffords left Florida agriculture better than she found it, and the contributions she made to the cattle industry will serve as a lasting legacy. She died in 2005 and is survived by her daughters, Martha, Barbara, Diane, and Jan.