He is not a typical rancher—or attorney. A Renaissance man, Brad Phares combines a love of learning and working the land with writing, painting and marketing ranch-inspired products.
The thread that ties together his varied creative pursuits is sharing the story of his life: capturing and preserving Florida’s iconic cow culture on canvas and in the printed word.
An eighth-generation rancher, Brad’s motivation is to protect a Florida ranching heritage he sees being swallowed up by development.
“Ranchers are private, humble, keep-your-head-down-and-do-your-work people,” Brad says. “We don’t talk much about why we do what we do and why it is important. We were late realizing the need to spread that message.”
Through his oil paintings of ranch landscapes, short stories, cowboy poetry, photographs and a podcast he launched in January, Brad hopes to broaden people’s horizons.
Rather than be cooped up in a courtroom, he is putting his law degree to use by focusing on trying to save his way of life.
Little by little, Brad says, ranches are being squeezed out. He points to Google maps that show how previously wide-open greenspaces have been replaced by asphalt—and that is not without consequence, he notes.
“Ranches are the only thing left to protect greenspace in Florida,” he says. “Millions of people moved in here who don’t have the background or frame of reference for what has been here. People don’t understand how water has moved historically. Water can’t go to where it used to go.
“One of my aspirations is to share the unique and little-known story of Florida ranching with my urban neighbors so that they have a better appreciation for how Florida ranches have played an integral role in creating Florida as a mega-state as well as the vital role they play in protecting our natural resources for the future.”
A Multifaceted Path
Ranching is in Brad’s blood. So is his affinity for storytelling and the pursuit of knowledge.
As a second grader, Brad filled a spiral notebook with short stories and pictures he created while sitting in class.
His parents encouraged him during his preteen years, taking him to Saturday morning art classes at the hobby store in Okeechobee.
“It was Bob Ross-style—sit down and paint it all at one time,” Brad explains. “It was not abstract, but not super realistic.”
He says he went for a month, then painted on his own before moving on to other interests. He didn’t resume painting until his late teens.
The desire returned after he visited the studio of landscape artist Rick Kelly. Brad improved his skill, painting beside Rick off and on for a couple of years.
“He told me nobody is good at landscape and good at people and animals,” Brad says. “You tell me I can’t do something, and I’m going to figure it out. My first ones were pretty rough, but it’s a lifelong journey. You can see the growth.”
Brad began writing poetry in high school while out building a fence or sitting on a tractor.
His parents steered him toward a career in veterinary medicine, and he started on that path at the University of Florida.
“I never gave a thought to whether I wanted to do it,” Brad says. “I discovered the vet school (at UF) was small-animal focused, and I was interested in large animals.”
He earned a bachelor’s in animal science, then shifted his focus to English, literature and history before deciding to enroll in law school at St. Thomas University in Miami.
“A year into it, I figured out it may not be what I wanted to do as a career,” Brad says. “I like the outdoors. I couldn’t be shut in an office all day.”
He says earning the degree helped him develop critical thinking and research skills that he puts to use daily.
“I’m entrepreneur-minded, so I looked for ways to use what I knew,” Brad says. “I focused on agriculture and spreading the message about the big disconnect between coastal and urban Florida and rural Florida.”
Branding His Message
His podcast, “Between the Beaches,” is one more way Brad is trying to reach urban folks. His goal to start is once a week.
“The hardest part is counteracting 20 years of misinformation,” he says. “Hopefully we can do that through my work and the cattle association.”
Brad showcases his Florida ranching traditions through his family-owned business, Cowhunters Unlimited. All
of his products are sold on www.cowhuntersunlimited.com.
That includes his paintings, his 2016 book titled “Celtic Cowhunter,” photographs, hats, T-shirts and, soon, reintroduction of his award-winning salsa that features his granny’s guava butter, along with hot sauce, jams and seasonings. One of his paintings is on the salsa label.
Brad is co-authoring another book, “Dreams of a Rancher’s Daughter,” with his daughter.
He says he gets about five hours of sleep a night, using the quiet, uninterrupted time his wife, Sam, is sleeping to paint and write—to tell his stories.
In “Celtic Cowhunter,” Brad wrote about the early Scots-Irish pioneers who migrated into what was then the Florida territory and helped birth the cattle industry and a way of life.
“I’m not sure any other culture had the fortitude to settle in and make a go of it,” he says.
Brad is equally determined.
“That genetic coding is what binds us to the land, to our livestock and to our way of life,” he says. “That fiercely independent fighting spirit is what unites us as we endeavor to preserve and protect our culture.”
See His Work at Brighton Field Days
The oil paintings of Brad Phares will be for sale at the 82nd annual Brighton Field Days Festival February 14-16 at the Fred Smith Rodeo Arena on the Seminole Reservation in Okeechobee.
The event features American Indian arts and crafts, a rodeo, authentic Seminole food, native dancers, live music, a snake show and alligator wrestling.
“I’ve built a pretty good following with the Seminole Tribe,” Brad says. “Very few people are painting in a way that reflects their culture. I grew up close by. I always knew and was fascinated by the Seminole culture.”
Brad says his paintings are contemporary portrayals that include historical aspects.
For more information about the festival, visit rezrodeo.com.