A successful citrus grower, rancher and aquaculturist, Frank “Sonny” Williamson Jr. is among Florida’s most progressive farmers. He is arguably Florida’s — and the nation’s — premier agro-ecologist. A visionary leader, Williamson understands that farmers must protect and preserve the natural environment in order to sustain their industry. For the last 25 years he has become increasingly committed to promoting responsible environmental stewardship.
A fifth-generation Floridian, Williamson was born in Clearwater on December 15, 1929. After graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in agriculture, he went to work on his father’s ranch, Williamson Cattle Company, in Okeechobee. He devoted the first 25 years of his career to Williamson Cattle, building it into one of the state’s largest cattle producers. The company now owns more than 10,000 acres in Okeechobee County, as well as land in Alabama. Its holdings in Florida include over 1,000 acres of citrus and 2,500 heads of cattle. In Alabama it operates 48 ponds that cover 1,200 acres and produce more than 9 million pounds of catfish each year. Not only is Williamson Cattle one of the largest and most diversified farms in the Southeast, it is also a model for economic and environmental sustainability.
Ever mindful of agriculture’s interface with the natural environment, Williamson is a firm believer that agricultural decisions should be made based on sound science. To that end, he has been a tireless supporter of agricultural and environmental research. In the 1990s as a governing member and chairman of the South Florida Water Management District, he persuaded the district to fund agro-ecology research conducted by the University of Florida on Buck Island Ranch at Archibold Biological Station in Lake Placid. Today he is leading research efforts at the UF/IFAS Indian River Research and Education Center Aquaculture Demonstration Project.
Williamson has gained a high level of respect among agriculturists, environmentalists and urban leaders and is known for his moderation and fairness. Lending his leadership skills to a diverse array of industry groups and conservation groups, he displays an uncanny ability to mobilize people to make rational decisions and work together toward a common goal. He has held leadership positions with the Okeechobee County Farm Bureau, the Okeechobee Soil and Water Conservation Board, the Florida Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the Florida Cattlemen’s Foundation and the University of Florida SHARE Council.
Williamson is one of seven national winners of the 2004 National Cattlemen’s Beef Association National Environmental Stewardship Award, presented by the Resources Conservation Service of the USDA. His special talents as a negotiator and mediator were recognized by the Florida Conflict Resolution Consortium in 2000 when he received the Ninth-Timer Powers Dispute Resolution Leadership Award. In 2003 he was named the Lancaster Sunbelt Farmer of the Year from Florida. That same year he received the Commissioner’s Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the Florida Environmental Stewardship Award from the Florida Cattlemen’s Association. He has been named an honorary member of Future Farmers of America as a result of his ongoing support of the organization.
Williamson’s progressive vision has helped keep agriculture strong and viable in Florida. He will be long remembered for his efforts to improve agricultural management to sustain the industry and protect the natural resources on which it depends.
Williamson lives in Okeechobee with his wife, Betty. They have three grown children, Wes, Kim and Karen.