Feb 10, 2022McLean family perseveres through growing challenges
Greening disease in citrus, imports of foreign fruit and ballooning real estate prices are leading many Central Florida growers to sell acreage, scale back, or try something different.
Challenges mount for Florida fruit growers. And yet, multiple generations of the McLean family remain strongly involved in farm operations there. Patriarch Benny McLean runs an organic peaches U-pick operation. His sons are busy – Matt McLean launched and runs an organic juice company, while Ben leads the charge on research fighting citrus greening. And his grandchildren even get involved in the farm market and earning dollars in a side operation from agritourists on a quest for the best photos.
The fruit market
On the outskirts of Clermont, Florida, Benny McLean at age 79 works outdoors, telling folks at the farm market about the glories of organic agriculture.
The farm family gives many tours to clubs and schools – on one occasion, a large group of staff from Disney. Respected as an organic grower, Benny speaks publicly several times a year. Every spring, for about a month, he operates a U-pick peaches operation that supplements the farm’s mainstay crop of citrus.
With 12 grandchildren in the area and a busy schedule, “I’m living the dream,” Benny said. “We’re still chasing rainbows up here in the citrus business.”
At the farm market, two of his grandchildren have worked out a side hustle offering up their pet birds for Instagram photos.
“They have a sign that says, ‘You can hold my chicken for a dollar,’ McLean said. “They’re big entrepreneurs. I think the last time we did it, they ended up with about $40.”
The U-pick farm market runs about 30 days, from early April to early May, said son Ben McLean. His father “just loves to interact with people. He likes to host the kids and neighbors there. He gets a lot of repeat business.
“Any way that he can help young people be inspired to eat healthy, eat local, eat organic and have people come out and interact with nature – he loves that.”
In organic circles, Benny is respected as a leader – in 2015, the Organic Trade Association named him its “Grower of the Year,” noting that, “He is responsible for converting close to 1,500 acres of citrus in Florida to organic, and assisted over 25 small family growers to convert to organic production.”
The family’s push to go organic was prompted in a large part by Benny’s son, Matt, deciding to launch an orange juice business, Uncle Matt’s Organic. The reaction of Matt’s grandfather (Benny’s dad, who they all called Pappy) to that supposedly newfound idea of going organic, was humorously blunt.
“’Matt, what the hell do you think we did for 150 years up here?’” Benny recalls Pappy saying about the days before the pesticide prevalence. “’Nobody ever told us it was organic.’”
Pappy McLean, who died in 2004, was knowledgeable on many subjects, including soil health. He had been taught to analyze the ratios of soil nutrients based on the Albrecht Method, and he was fond of reminding Benny that soil pH wasn’t the only thing to keep an eye on. He was a believer in the importance of teaching children to work.
“As we were growing up, you had to go to work during the summer. You went out there in the hot groves in the summer, pulling vines and all that,” Benny said. “All of us boys grew up knowing how to work.”
Today, Benny McLean remains active, working most days and giving three or four presentations per year. A common question from listeners is what they should know to be a successful organic grower.
“If you don’t understand soil chemistry and physics – if you don’t understand the biology in that soil, do not try to be organic,” Benny said. “It’s a whole different world that’s under your feet.”
Unto the sons
The push to grow citrus organically wouldn’t have happened without Matt McLean’s vision for an organic orange juice company.
Matt earned a degree in finance and was serving as a consultant for a German who owned farmland and exported frozen concentrated orange juice, when he became interested in the idea of growing organically and selling organic orange juice.
Brother Ben calls it a classic story of the American Dream.
“My brother started the brand in 1999, Uncle Matt’s Organic, and it’s still the nation’s oldest and largest- selling brand for organic orange juice. And of course, we joined in as partners with him in the early 2000s, as we began to grow our own fruit not only for juice, but also we began to pack fresh well into 2015, 2016,” Ben said.
There were a few ups and downs – the family sold Uncle Matt’s Organic to Dean Foods in 2017, but that parent company went bankrupt a few years later. The McLean family in 2020 assembled a new investment group to repurchase their company. Investors in that group included Gary Hirshberg, co- founder of Stonyfield Organic; John Foraker, former CEO of Annie’s and co-founder and CEO of Once Upon a Farm; Andrew Abraham, CEO and founder at Orgain; Nicole and Peter Dawes, founders of Late July Snacks and Nixie Sparkling Water; Matt Rogers, founder of Nest and Incite. org. Renewal Funds, a mission venture capital firm with a commitment to supporting organic companies, also participated, according to a news release from the company.
“When Dean’s financial distress took a saddening and unfortunate turn, it became a rare opportunity for us to purchase Uncle Matt’s to expand distribution, innovate into new categories and educate consumers on the intrinsic health benefits of buying organic,” Matt said in the news release.
Ben agreed it was a win, on the whole.
“In some ways, it was a positive, even though it was a roller coaster,” he said. “It’s just been a great experience, and Dad and Matt and I, we wouldn’t change that for the world. … (Dad) and I work together growing it, and Matt, my brother, works selling it. We’ve always said that’s our partnership, how things work.”
Today, in addition to marketing agreements with other growers, the McLean family itself has nearly 100 acres of fruit production, either owned or under lease. The family grows about 40 acres of organic navel oranges, 20 acres of organic red grapefruit under basic maintenance, 17 acres of tangelos and tangerines – some of which are in transition to organic, some organic Sugar Belles and 10 acres of peaches.
“We’ve got some land around that we could bring back into organic production,” Ben McLean said. Land with bulldozed orchards can lie fallow but easily be re-submitted for organic certification as long as it hasn’t been sprayed with synthetic inputs. “So, we’re really trying to use these small research plots, of the Sugar Belles (variety), for example, to really evaluate and justify. We could probably find another 100 acres of land sitting around fallow that used to be in organic production that we could plant right back into it.”
If not citrus, they could plant it out into peaches, or even cucurbits and other vegetables. “Citrus production is our love, and organic citrus production has become an even greater love,” Ben said.
— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor: Photo at top: “Uncle” Matt McLean of Uncle Matt’s Organic, with his nieces, nephews and own children. Photos: McLean Photography/Susan McLean