Mar 22, 2013
Organic grower branches into other crops

The McLean family of Clermont, Fla., has been growing citrus for four generations, and has been marketing organic juice under the Uncle Matt’s Organic label for a decade and a half. The business also is finding new fruit to grow, including organic peaches and blueberries.

Angus McLean, great-grandfather of current owner Matt McLean, first planted the grove. His son, William “Pappy” McLean, continued the tradition. The family’s early production was entirely organic, although that was before the advent of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

“Four generations ago, we were organic by default. Then, when pesticides (became available) in the 1940s-1950s, they got into pesticide by design,” Matt McLean said.

Matt started as a juice broker, with customers buying his product around the world. A German customer first planted the organic seed in his mind when he began asking for organic juice.

“I was exporting juice to Europe and the Middle East in the mid-1990s, and I had a customer over there who asked me about organic, and I didn’t know anything about organic,” he said.

He consulted his family members, including his grandfather, about the feasibility of an organic citrus grove in Florida, which is where he learned about the family’s history with the practice, he said.

“That gave me the confidence that absolutely we can grow organic,” he said.

He created Uncle Matt’s Organic in 1999 to market the family’s organic citrus, taking the name from his 10 nieces and nephews, who range from ages 6 to 16. His wife, Susan, helps with the family business. His parents, brother-in-law and sister-in-law also chip in.

“We see a need for organic, because I love my nieces and nephews and wanted a nutritious, healthy product for them to consume,” he said.

Uncle Matt’s Organic blossomed into a network of 25 growers who produce organic fruit on about 1,200 acres in central Florida. The growers the company partners with share the same philosophy. The citrus is processed into organic juices that are sold across the state, as well as at specialty retail stores throughout the country. A page on the company’s website, directs customers to the nearest locations.

The operation is the largest organic citrus grower in the Sunshine State, producing more than 20 varieties.

Uncle Matt’s Organic marked its 10-year anniversary in 2009 with a move into new territory: blueberries, peaches and avocadoes. The move was by customer demand, but also driven by an interest in branching into new directions.

“We wanted to diversify,” Matt said.

Growers who wanted to join the Uncle Matt’s Organic network also added blueberries and peaches. Much of the fruit was incorporated into the juice line. Many of the joining orchards were already organic, or were at least considering it.

“They had a desire to turn their grove organic. We actually advocate and promote turning organic,” Matt said.

The company actively fertilizes and sprays its crops for pests. The only difference is the technique. Matt uses parasitic wasps to control the Asian citrus psyllid, which vectors the deadly citrus greening disease. The process uses feather meal and compost for fertilizer. It also involves growing cover crops between the rows.

“We use organic-approved pesticides and fertilizers – there’s less risk and less exposure to harmful chemicals,” he said.

Matt is quite vocal about organic production, and shares the message with all who will listen. The company is active with the Organic Trade Association, of which Matt is the board president. He also showcases his products at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit trade show. He has advocated for organics in Washington, D.C., and has participated in organic and citrus field days with the University of Florida.

Perhaps the most effective measure is the tours he offers to schools, retailers and other organizations. It is a chance for them to see first-hand what “organic” looks like.

“Basically, what we’re doing is we’re educating everyone about organic. We’re very passionate about what we do,” he said. “We support American organic farms – all of our fruit is grown in the USA, and we put that on our labels.”

Uncle Matt’s Organic is not currently looking for new growers to add to the network, but Matt isn’t ruling out the possibility of future expansions. Even if he doesn’t add new acreage, he will continue spreading the organic message in hopes more growers will follow his lead.

“Our goal is to continue to convert more growers to organic,” he said. “We truly believe it’s a better way to farm. It’s a better product, and it’s safer.”

Everett Brazil III





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