Organic Farms Matter: Uncle Matt’s Organics

Patriarch Benny McLean

Patriarch & Story Teller Benny McLean

Located a half- hour west of Florida’s Magic Kingdome is Uncle Matt’s Organics, a 14-year old family business supplying discerning consumers with organic citrus and juice products. Spending a day with the business’ patriarch and story teller, Benny McLean was the highlight of my Floridian vacation. While my family enjoyed the thrill of Space Mountain® and Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin®, I savored the succulent Florida grapefruits and oranges and learned about the challenges of being a farmer not far from Mickey’s home and his 17,500,000 visitors (2012).

The Story

After World War II, US Route 27, was the northern snowbirds conduit to get to the Sunshine Coast, arriving when Florida was predominately home to farmers tending orange groves, strawberry fields, and cattle ranches. The allure of pristine beaches and warm climes brought the northern transplants, despite the mid-60’s television advertisements warning viewers to be wary of buying “swamp land in Florida.”

The Citrus Tower

The Citrus Tower

Clermont, Florida was the epicenter of the citrus industry with the iconic Citrus Tower, opening in 1956, soaring above 300,000 acres of grapefruit and orange groves in Lake County, just west of Orange County, where Orlando lies. Taking the elevator to the top of the Tower provides views to the flatlands from a 450-foot vantage point, since the 226-foot structure sits on a 228-foot knoll, part of the central Florida spine of rolling hills. At the tower base were activities to entertain, products to buy and tours of groves to educate visitors of the delight of citrus.

In the early 1960’s Walt Disney saw that his Los Angeles based Disneyland® was a significant tourist attraction, but realized that to truly create a magic place, he needed control over a much larger land mass. Flying over central Florida, he saw opportunity with its network of highways and vacant parcels where he could create a place of imagination. The Magic Kingdom® opened in 1971 to unprecedented enthusiasm and is now the number one attended theme park in the world. Since then, unparalleled theme park and accommodation construction have continued to fill the central Florida landscape making the Orlando area a destination for visitors from around the world.

Old and New Agricultural Florida

A Snapshot of the Old Red Farm Road and New Asphalt Road

In 1971, Walt Disney World® employed 5,500 workers more commonly known as “cast members” and now boasts it provides jobs for more than 59,000 employees with a $1.8 billion payroll in a 2009 report prepared by Arduin, Laffer & Moore, a conservative-leaning consulting firm. The same report asserts that 2.5% of Florida’s gross state product is because of the Disney theme park businesses. These numbers reveal why there has been a 415% population increase in Orange and Lake Counties, in what had been traditionally a farming region. Regardless of the population influx, devastating Arctic blasts in 1983, 1985, and 1989 were the ultimate death knell of the historic citrus economy. With the freezes, the ever expanding entertainment industry, land being converted to its economic “highest and best” commercial use, and farmers needing to make a living, land was converted to housing, strip malls, and suburbia, leaving places such as Groveland, Minneola, and Tangelo Park as historic names of a bygone era.

Once a Farmer, Always a Farmer

Despite a youthful rebuff of a farming career, Benny’s youngest son, Matt McLean (of Uncle Matt’s fame) equipped with a finance degree has evolved into the “pioneer, agriculturist activist and entrepreneur” in the organic food industry. Uncle Matt’s only grows organically, with no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, or chemicals contaminating their products, because it is better for the environment, water quality, and personal health. As Matt says, “before the 20th century all food was organic,” as synthetic fertilizers were initially made in the munitions factories needing to be re-purposed following World War II.

More importantly, with the demise of the Florida orange industry north of the cross Florida I-4 interstate, and only 10,000 acres of Lake County citrus groves now remaining, Matt saw opportunity. In the late 1990’s, no organic orange juice was available. Concurrently, the German market was looking for new citrus sources, since the Teutonic climate is too cold, and the Germans yearned for organics, too. Finally, in 2000, the National Organic Program established the rules around organic production, which created an opening for a fledgling organic orange business to grow.

Organic Farms Matter

Uncle Matt’s Organics is a family-run business, which owns and leases groves, purchases fruit from neighboring farms and supplies all natural, not-from-concentrate, organic juices to markets across the country. The organic orange juice market is only served by Uncle Matt’s and a private label brand. The organic citrus business is small compared to the conventionally grown products, but a critically important part of the food market, since there is ever-increasing growth in the organic food industry. Despite still being small, the organic agricultural market continues to grow at a faster rate than the conventionally grown food and in 2008 was a $21 billion industry and one to two percent of US market according to the Organic Trade Association.

A New Development on the Edge of a Former Orange Grove

A New Development on the Edge of a Former Orange Grove

Uncle Matt’s is passionate about organics and will not farm as most conventional growers do with petroleum based herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. Benny’s passion for organics is so strong, that he said some of the local food storage facilities (packing houses) will not store their organic products, because they can’t guarantee their safety. As one packing house owner said, “Rats don’t lie. They can smell the nutrients (in the organic produce).”

From the top of the Citrus Tower, I could not see an orange grove, but could only imagine the undulating rows of fruit trees. Farmland in Florida is so threatened with conversion to development that just prior to the economic meltdown between 2002 to 2007, Florida lost 25% of its citrus acreage, according to the USDA Agricultural Census. From my travels in Lake County it appears that housing starts were up again, as there were multiple tentacles of new roads and subdivisions. Despite the pressures from real estate development, Uncle Matt’s will be the nexus for organic citrus production for the foreseeable future because of the family’s dedication and passion. Uncle Matt’s is here to stay supplying the freshest, most nutritionally complete citrus products for the discerning palate.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is also on the WA Sustainable Food & Farming Network Board. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world.

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