Archive for April, 2013

A Day in the Life of an Organic Citrus Grower

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Groves, Growing, and What I Hope to Leave My Grandchildren

By Benny McLean

What’s it like to be an organic citrus grower? We sat down with Benny McLean, production manager at Uncle Matt’s Organic and Uncle Matt’s father, to find out. Benny has been a part of the citrus industry for almost 50 years, and has been an organic citrus grower for nearly a decade and a half.  Here’s what this farmer had to say about life in the groves…

photo credit: McLean Photography


I live in a citrus grove and I have grapefruit trees planted there. When I leave my house in the morning, I always drive through my favorite grapefruit grove.  I’ll look at the trees and ask myself questions like, “Do I have a good bloom?” “Do I have leaf drop?” “Do I see any bugs in there that could cause a problem?” It’s a daily habit for me, like getting up in the morning and eating breakfast. And the answers are out there: in the grove. All I have to do is ride the grove and the grove will tell me if there’s a problem. My dad used to say that the rising sun has the highest amount of beneficial rays for anything that grows in the soil, so if you’re going to find a problem, you’ll find it then.


As an organic grower, I don’t use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers in our farm program, so observation becomes that much more important. For example, if a grove is in need of fertilizer, it will tell you by the color of the leaf.  I look for discoloration in the old flush [leaves] and discoloration in the new flush. When a tree is off-color, it might be because the trees are running low on potassium or nitrogen. Under that scenario, I’ll pull leaf samples to be analyzed and compare the lab results with what I observe. Weather patterns and leaf analysis will determine when to apply our organic fertilizer program.

In springtime, my day will also include assessing the fungus situation in the grove and its effect on the trees and fruit. At this time of year, we’re mainly concerned with Scab, Alternaria, and Melanose.  While harmless, these three conditions can prove unsightly and can knock our fruit out of grade at the packing house.  In order to boost revenue from a grove, you need a high pack-out per acre. If we find these conditions in our groves, we’ll apply organic fungicides, like beneficial bacteria, to help remedy the situation.

Pests don’t really become a problem for us until May or June.  We do have a little pest called a “rust mite.” It’s very small, but it will put a scar on the peel that will cause the graders down at the packing house to reject it. It has nothing to do with the flavor or nutritional quality of the fruit, but the rust mite scars the fruit’s appearance.


During the summer months, rain patterns in Florida really help things grow –– including weeds.  We get a lot of questions from other growers about how we control weeds since we don’t use synthetic herbicides. Honestly, we don’t obsess over weeds.  Granted, we don’t want them growing too close to the irrigation microjet emitters, so in all our groves, we’ll use weed-eaters and in-and-out mowers for weed control, as well as good, old-fashioned hand labor.  Growing up, harvesting labor crews would have come in with hoes, and saws, and clippers and they’d cut the vines and hoe up the bad weeds and all of that. They’d work through the hot, Florida summer. Yet, some of today’s farmers don’t even know what a hoe is. Their only reaction is to spray weeds with herbicides.

My father always told me you have to look at it two ways. He said if you got an orange tree growing in your yard and you have beautiful St. Augustine grass growing under the orange tree, you could say, “Oh my, that orange tree is getting all the fertilizer and water from my beautiful grass, so I’ve got to do something about that orange tree.” The next guy comes by and says, “Oh my, that grass is taking all the fertilizer and water away from the orange tree. I’ve got to do something about that grass.” My dad would say, “You know what? They’re compatible. They exist with each other. They get along.” The exception would be what we call a “reset,” such as a small one-year old tree. It’s then that the weeds are a major problem. But a mature tree actually produces shade that doesn’t allow for weeds to grow well under its canopy anyway.


In late fall, when harvest is right around the corner, I begin to look for signs of fruit maturity. There are state-mandated maturity guidelines for harvesting based on minimum levels of brix [fruit sugar], juice, and ratio. Until the fruit meets all three of these criteria, we can’t pick it. Every variety has its own standards. After meeting the maturity levels, we’ll look at size because there are minimum size requirements as well. So, you’ll find us out in the groves with our calipers measuring fruit size as harvest time (November through May for various varieties), gets closer.

What’s funny is that it’s the buyer who decides what the right size is. The fruit falls into five different categories, with one being too small and the other, too large. So, it’s the middle three sizes that a buyer typically wants. The homemaker doesn’t have a choice when going to the supermarket. When I give grove tours, many women will see some of my biggest grapefruit and ask why they can’t buy that in the store. Well, now you know!


At the end of the day, I love growing organically. I have eleven beautiful grandkids and I know I am creating something worthwhile for their longtime health if they are going to eat citrus.  I believe I am educating them on how to read the label, so to speak. They can make intelligent food choices based on the knowledge of how a food was grown, how it was processed and how it was stored. I know what it is to be a conventional farmer, and I know the difference eating organic can make in your health. As long as I have a choice, I’ll never go back with all that I’ve learned and observed over the past 14 years of being an organic farmer. I believe that organic is the better choice.

A Quick Q&A with “Papaw” McLean

UM: What’s your favorite citrus variety?

Papaw: Ruby Red Grapefruit

UM: What’s your favorite tractor?

Papaw: A big green one with citrus implements

UM: How do you like your grapefruit eaten?

Papaw: “Sectionized.”

UM: Favorite breakfast?

Papaw: Fresh organic grapefruit from my grove, 4 ounces of cottage cheese, and a handful of raw organic almonds

UM: What legacy do you want to leave your grandkids?

Papaw: I want them to understand that it’s the three L’s. #1: You got to love life. #2 You’ve got to love the land. #3 You’ve got to love the Lord. And if you can understand those three principles, you’ll carry this legacy onto the next generation.

UM: In your opinion, what’s the best reason for someone to try organic for the first time?

Papaw: I know that organic is a healthier source of citrus juice –– orange, tangerine, grapefruit. I know that it has a higher antioxidant level than any of the other juices. If you’re going to drink orange juice because it’s healthy, then choose the healthiest one.

“Why I’m PRO ‘NO-GMO’” | An Open Letter from Uncle Matt

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Dear Friends,

As an Uncle Matt’s supporter, you know the importance of eating food that is high in nutrition and free from the residual effects of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers often used in today’s conventional growing practices.

But there is an issue you may not know about that deeply affects the U.S. food supply and has far-reaching global implications: GMOs. A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques.

What’s all the talk about? Simply put, GMOs combine genes in crops from unrelated organisms that could not have otherwise have mixed through biological reproduction and/or conventional breeding. For instance, a frog gene could be inserted into a tomato plant to allow the tomato plant to grow faster.  Common crops that have been modified include wheat, soy and corn. Ultimately, the goal is to increase crop yields by creating GMO plants more resistant to pests and disease.

While farming with GMOs might increase yields over the short term, “Round-Up Ready” crops (as they are dubbed) utilizing the chemical “glyphosate,” a weed killer, have spawned a growing concern for human health. Why? Because not enough research exists on what the long-term risks from GMOs are when examining our environment and human health.

As an organic farmer, I’m concerned with answering questions like, “Does the human body respond to GMOs as food or as foreign substances?” If the body responds to the genetic modification as something “foreign,” it won’t break it down and nourish the body as it should. In fact, the body may actually have a negative autoimmune response. Additionally, what are implications for pregnant women, babies and children who consume GMO foods? Is there a correlation between GMO-food consumption and the spike in food allergies, autism, and ADHD that we see today?

As we grapple over these alarming questions regarding human health, unanswered questions surrounding the impact of GM crops on animal and environmental health remain: What are the ramifications of GM-engineered animal feed given to livestock? Or what about the potential contamination of GM crops on non-GM varieties via open pollination? One grain grower told me about his concern for “trespassing pollen” on his property with organic acreage.

So while the topic can appear daunting, here are 2 important steps you can take today to make a difference ­­–– not only for the safety of your family but also for your community and your state.


Aside from banning GMOs, which I would be in favor of until ramifications for human, animal, and environmental health were fully understood, the easiest short-term action that allows for consumer choice is food labeling. Consumers would then know whether or not they were consuming GMOs and the marketplace would decide whether or not they want to be a part of the GMO experiment.

The national ‘Just-Label-It’ campaign is lobbying Washington D.C. to introduce a law that would require labeling of all GMO foods. Visit to learn about the 8 steps you can take to promote labeling. And while Prop 37, which would have required GMO labeling in California, was defeated last November, there are currently 14 states with similar bills being considered.

If you are more favorable to letting the marketplace decide, Whole Foods recently announced that any products sold in its U.S. and Canadian stories that contain genetically modified ingredients must be labeled by 2018.


Consuming organic foods is one sure-fire way to avoid GMOs.  Not only are organic foods produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, they are also produced without genetically-modified organisms. GMOs and GM seeds are strictly prohibited in the production of organically-grown foods. For example, certified organic corn flakes will not be produced with GMO corn. Organic soymilk uses only non-gmo soy.

In the end, your dollar is your vote and voice, not only for you, but for your family as well. By voting for organic, you are voting for a much cleaner method for producing food that is healthy for you, your family and the planet. And by choosing an all-organic diet, you’ll never have to worry about consuming GMOs again.

Healthy regards,


Matt McLean is the founder and CEO of Uncle Matt’s Organic, a family-owned business located in Clermont, Florida, specializing in fresh organic juices and fresh produce. He also has served on the Organic Trade Association Board for the past 8 years, the last two as President.