The primary source of economic activity in Highlands County is agriculture. Within that category, most of the economic activity comes from citrus, cattle and dairy operations.

Presently the third largest county in Florida for growing citrus, Highlands County is the fourth largest total citrus producer and the largest producer of the ever-popular Valencia orange in Florida. The recent growing season produced more than 26 million, 90-pound boxes of oranges, enough to produce nearly 40 million gallons of juice.

The citrus industry employs between 2,500-3,000 people on a year-round full time basis; a number that nearly doubles during the harvesting season which begins in October and ends in May.  Growers are constantly researching new ways to harvest fruit safely and efficiently that minimizes handling and enhances the product between the tree and consumer. Table grade citrus is taken to packing houses in the area for shipment to market. The rest of the fruit is taken to several juice processing plants in the area for ultimate distribution to a national and international market.

Information from the State of Florida indicates that statewide production of citrus results in more than an $8 billion annual economic impact, and in Highlands County it is estimated that citrus accounts for more than $200 million in annual economic benefits to the area.

Highlands County citrus growers pay over $5 million in local annual property taxes while the Florida Farm Bureau estimates that the growers receive less that 40 cents in local government services for each tax dollar paid. This translates to about 60 cents of each dollar paid by citrus growers benefiting other county taxpayers, which helps keep local property taxes low. These same growers pay over $3 million annually in advertising taxes to promote their own product through the Florida Department of Citrus.

Highlands County citrus growers are among the leaders in state water conservation efforts and in the reduced use of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and other farm chemicals. Growers use state-of-the-art techniques and best management practices developed locally and in conjunction with the University of Florida, the Florida Department of Agriculture and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Severe weather is a threat to the citrus industry. It is understandable, therefore, that when occasional threats of a hurricane occur just before the fruit matures for picking, or when rare freezing temperatures occur just north of Highlands County, area growers and the community at large have a lot at stake. Many Highlands County citrus growers go beyond their daily work routine and provide valuable services in a variety of community leadership roles. To say that the citrus industry is important in Highlands County is at best an understatement.

The greatest use of land area in Highlands County comes from the cattle industry. Over 60% of the total 700,000 acres of land in the county are used for cattle grazing, including some of the most pristine native areas. Cattlemen of Highlands County and across Florida are considered by many as first-line environmentalists when it comes to use of land and natural resources. Cattlemen understand that protection of wetlands, hammocks, cut-throat seeps, native ranges and other natural vegetative areas is not only important to conservation of our natural environment, but also provides for shade, water and forage for cattle, as well as being pleasing to the eye. Practicing the best environmental safeguards and enhancements assures continued productivity of the land for the future. 

The State of Florida ranks 10th in production of beef cattle nationally. Within the state, Highlands County ranks first in number of beef cows and second in beef cows and calves. According to the Florida Department of Agriculture, there are over 72,000 head of beef cows and over 121,000 total cows and calves grazing annually on over 425,000 acres in Highlands County. This recently resulted in over $31 million in annual gross sales for the more than 300 beef cattle producers in Highlands County.

Cattle operations in Highlands County range in size from under 10 head to several thousand annually. The average herd size is about 250, compared to 25-50 in other parts of Florida and the nation. While some cattle ranches are corporately owned and managed, most of the cattle ranches in Highlands County are family owned and operated through several generations. By taking a drive through the local countryside, it does not take long to understand the proud history and reputation as caretakers of the land enjoyed by Highlands County cattlemen.