Matt McLean has seen plenty of ups and downs in the family business. That’s what happens when four generations of McLeans devote themselves to the profitable, but unpredictable agriculture industry in Florida.
But now, McLean (BSBA ’93) might be facing the greatest challenge the family and other citrus growers have ever faced, and the result could have a devastating impact on the state’s prized crop.
If you have a bottle or carton of orange juice in your refrigerator, it most likely came from Florida oranges. According to the Florida Department of Citrus, more than 90 percent of the U.S. orange juice supply is made from Florida oranges. Florida is second only to Brazil in global orange juice production, and the state supplies more than 70 percent of U.S. citrus products. Florida citrus is a $10.7 billion industry, and employs more than 62,000 Floridians.
And it’s all being threatened by citrus greening.
“Citrus greening is the most devastating thing we’ve seen,” said McLean, 43. “It could wipe out our industry if we can’t find a cure.”
Trees infected by citrus greening fail to produce properly mature oranges and grapefruits. The fruit’s skin is green—hence the term—oddly-shaped, and can’t be sold or processed. If left untreated, trees infected with citrus greening die within five years.
The culprit is the Asian citrus psyllid insect, or Diaphorina citri. These insects carry the bacterium that cause citrus greening, a disease believed to have infected every citrus grove in the state.
McLean’s groves are no different. McLean, the Chief Executive Officer of Uncle Matt’s Organic, said of the 1,500 acres the company owns or leases, only 30 acres are unaffected by citrus greening.
Uncle Matt’s Organic has teamed with the University of Florida, The Organic Center—an independent non-profit educational and research organization—and the Organic Trade Association (OTA), on a three-year research study to stop citrus greening. The team’s members are trying to raise more than $300,000 to fund the project.
A focus of the project is on that 30-acre section of Uncle Matt’s Organic, and why it’s been resistant to citrus greening thus far. McLean said those trees are approximately 70 years old, have Cleopatra rootstock and produce Temple oranges. Whether any or all of those factors play a role in preventing citrus greening in that grove remains to be seen.
In addition to the research project, Uncle Matt’s Organic has been working on in-house treatments that have resulted in moderate successes. Led by Ben McLean III (MS Hort Science ‘91), Matt’s brother and head of the company’s research and development unit, Ben has developed a four-step approach utilizing biological controls, boron, slow-release organic fertilizer and botanical oils.
“We’ve made progress,” Matt McLean said. “We haven’t cured it, but we’ve slowed it.”
Although their family history in the citrus industry goes back four generations, McLean said he had no intentions of working for the family business. He remembers those hot summers working in the family’s groves as a kid while his friends were at the beach.
“It taught me valuable lessons about hard work, teamwork and a love for land,” said McLean, “working in the hot groves was not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. That’s why I went to college.”
McLean, however, didn’t stray far. Upon graduation from Warrington, he returned to Clermont and started an international juice brokerage business. Shortly thereafter, he met a German bottler inquiring about organic grapefruit juice. That simple request sparked McLean’s “aha moment.”
He researched the US citrus marketplace, and realized organic alternatives were few and far between. Two years after that chance encounter, Uncle Matt’s Organic was born.
And the company has been extremely successful under McLean’s leadership. McLean said Uncle Matt’s Organic is the No. 1-selling organic orange and grapefruit juice in the U.S., according to SPINS, which provides data on the natural, organic and specialty products industry. The company’s products can be found nationwide, and just moved into Canada.
Although the family business—and the citrus industry—are facing a monumental challenge, McLean remains positive about the future.
“I have a simple philosophy: Live by faith, not by fear,” McLean said. “I have hope that we’ll find a cure.”