Wolff brothers honored at Farm-City luncheon

OKEECHOBEE — Nonagenarian brothers J.O. “Jo” Wolff and Jack Wolff were honored at the Nov. 21 Farm-City Week luncheon for their decades of contributions in local agriculture.

At the Nov. 21 event, held at the Okeechobee KOA, Bonnie Wolf Pelaez, of the Florida Department of Agriculture Office of Agriculture Water Policy, introduced the brothers, co-winners of the Person of the Year for Agriculture award. The Wolff brothers, both in their 90s, have been involved in many different agricultural ventures over the years.

Lake Okeechobee News/Katrina Elsken
Wolff Brothers celebrated for lifetime of agriculture ventures
The Wolff Brothers were honored at the Nov. 21 Farm-City Week lunch at the Okeechobee KOA. The brothers’ agriculture ventures have included beef cattle, dairy cattle, oranges, chickens, avacados and even pigeons, spanning from the 1930s to present day. Left to right are J.O. Wolff, Mickey Bandi of Okeechobee County Farm Bureau, Jack Wolff and Bonnie Wolff Pelaez of the Florida Department of Agriculture Office of Agriculture Water Policy.

“Jo and Jack Wolff were born in Okeechobee in the 1920s, and spent most of their early years in and around Park Drug Store, which their farther owned,” said Ms. Pelaez. She noted their father was the pharmacist and sometimes also served as the only doctor in town. “Doc” Wolff also raised pigeons in his backyard and shipped them to restaurants in New York, where they were served as “squab,” she continued.

In the 1930s, Doc and his sons went to Tallahassee to bid at state land auctions, she explained. They bought 10- to 40-acre parcels of swamp and native brush for around $30 an acre, and started raising cattle. “The majority were what would be called Cracker Cattle, but included about 20 Brahman heifers purchased for $20 per head from the Dixie Cattle Company.” The brothers worked in the cattle business while attending high school.

Jo attended Georgia Military College, but came back after two years after Jack joined the army and was sent to Japan, Ms. Pelaez continued. Jo continued to operate the ranch, augmenting his income by building fences and day working as a cowboy for other ranchers.

“Those were challenging days to be in the cattle business,” she said. “The Great South Florida Flood of 1947 covered 90 percent of eastern Florida from Orlando to the Keys. One hundred inches of rain, followed by two hurricanes and a tropical disturbance forced local families to put their cattle onto the top of the unfinished dike from Taylor Creek to the Kissimmee River, where they stayed for three to four months until flood waters receded.

After World War II, Jo began a venture with Teddy Greenberger, raising chickens. Due to the food shortages, they found a market for their poultry, which they sold for cash by the bird. Each week they received 300 chicks delivered to the Okeechobee Post Office. They raised the chickens to about 2.5 pound size and then peddled them all around the lake, selling them for $1 for a pullet, $1.25 for a rooster. Grocers complained they were cutting into their sales, so one day a police officer asked for their license. Ms. Pelaez said Jo sought advice from his cousin’s husband, who happened to be Judge Tom Conely. They learned Florida law does not require a license for a producer to sell his own products.

“After Jack came back from the war and subsequent college, Jack and Jo found themselves struggling in the beef cattle business,” she said. “They had cattle on the Okeechobee parcel and leased a section of land in Highlands County from the Durrance family. They could not actually pay for the lease, so they drove tractors, planting grass in exchange for being able to put cattle on the Durrance property.

Next, they tried the dairy business. “Faced with the ownership of a relatively small parcel, combined with land prices that were soaring to $300 per acre, they had to figure out a way to make the existing property more productive to support the two of them. In 1957, they started Wolff Brothers Dairy, only the second dairy in the county, having purchased Holstein and Jersey heifers from around the Southeast.

“The milking parlor was being built at the same time, but the girls got ready before the barn did,” she said. The brothers milked the cows, sometimes in the rain in an unfinished barn, giving all the milk away for hog feed for two months since the milk produced under those conditions could not be sold as Grade A.

“That same year, the lake was at 21 feet, and lapping at the back of the barn since the dike was still not complete. Never ones to shirk at trying new things, Jo and Jack experimented with growing corn silage, and utilizing a square baler for hay. Neither one of those things had been tried locally before,” she explained.

While they were developing the dairy, they also started their own orange grove making use of a 20-acre parcel that had been cut off from the rest of the property by drainage ditches.

The budded citrus trees were planted in 1963.

“Over the years, Jo and Jack participated in 4-H and FFA activities along with their families. The herd grew to include about 25 percent registered Brown Swiss that they would show around the state,” she continued.

In 1981, Wolff Brothers expanded their citrus operation to include a parcel in Fort Drum where they were raising dairy heifers and hay. Two years later, they lost about 25 percent of the trees to a freeze, but they replanted.

“Citrus was good for many years but disease pressure began to force them to evaluate other options,” she said.

In the late 1980s, new regulations for dairies brought more challenges. At the time, the dairies were blamed for the excess phosphorus load flowing into Lake Okeechobee. In 1990, the Wolff Brothers divided their dairy business when they participated in the state’s dairy buyout program. Jack and his son moved their operation to Georgia while Jo leased a local dairy for a short while, Ms. Pelaez continued.

The brothers’ new agriculture ventures continued. Three years ago, when Jo was 92 and Jack was 90, they planted 20 acres of green skin avocados the first and only avocado grove in Okeechobee County, she explained. “In the past six months, they have transitioned a portion of the old orange grove to Floratam sod. “We’re not certain what the next agricultural venture is going to be for Jo and Jack Wolff, but you can rest assured that it will be innovative and may be something no one has ever done before,” she said.

If you are interested in seeing more photos and highlights from the Farm-City Luncheon, click HERE to view our slideshow.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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