Meet the Grower: Benny McLean
Grove Locations: 3 locations in Lake County, Florida
Uncle Matt’s Grower Since: 1999
Crops: 6 acres of Navels, Valencias, Honeybell Tangelos, Red Grapefruit, and Pummelos; 5 acres of peaches and 66 acres of Sunburst Tangerines and Honey Tangerines (part owner).
Acreage: 77 acres. Benny is also head of production over all 800 acres in the Uncle Matt’s Organic Farm Plan.
Known affectionately as “Papaw” to his more than a dozen grandkids, Benny is the patriarch of the Uncle Matt’s Organic family. His wealth of experience in growing citrus, and today organic citrus, spans over half a century and has taken him all over Florida and Latin America as an international growing consultant. Benny was recently recognized for his contributions to the organic industry and named “Organic Farmer of the Year” by the Organic Trade Association.
Benny’s sunny disposition and optimistic outlook on life has helped him weather destructive freezes to his crops, the volatility of the commodity markets and now, the devastating impacts of citrus greening. Despite his many accomplishments during his long career in the industry, Benny most enjoys the simple things in life, like fishing on the lake with his grandson, watching the summer rains water his backyard grove, and attending Florida Gator games with his wife of of over 50 years, Susan.
Read on to know more about Uncle Matt’s own dad and our very first organic farmer, Benny McLean.
UMO: Tell us a little about your background in agriculture education.
Benny: I graduated from the University of Florida in 1965 with a degree in Ag Economics and a minor in Fruit Crops.
UMO: Where did you go after graduation?
Benny: I was hired as an agricultural statistician by the Florida Crop and Livestock Reporting Service. I couldn’t spell it but I was one! Since I was in charge of the Florida citrus crop estimate that came out in October of every year, I had the opportunity to visit every grove in the state of Florida. We determined the variety, root stock, spacing, and the age of the trees. All of this information was entered into a computer program to estimate each county’s crop size and each variety’s crop size for the entire state. It was a great on-the-job education for me because by traveling the state, I got to see all the new plantings in different types of soil and locations, as well as interact with growers and citrus project managers statewide. That job began building my confidence that one day I could go out on my own and grow citrus myself.
UMO: What was the next step in your career?
Benny: I was hired by Libby’s in Clermont, Florida to grow and fertilize “resets” for the company’s 9,000 acres of citrus in Lake County. In addition, I was in charge of a 1,000-acre lemon project. I had no experience growing a lemon, but that gave me ample opportunity to learn how to grow lemons in the state of Florida. After two years, I was about to be promoted to production manager for a new 2,000-acre grove in West Palm Beach, but due to health concerns for my father at the time, I declined the position and went to work for High Acres Fertilizers as a consultant to set up herbicide programs for their citrus growers.
Two years later, in 1971, I ventured out in a business partnership with Dave Gurney and formed G&M Groves, Inc. and we went into the grove care-taking business. We stayed in business in Clermont until the 1983 freeze.
UMO: That freeze was one for the books. What happened to G&M after that?
Benny: Actually, one month prior to the freeze, Libby’s contacted me again. At this point, they had 10,000 acres, their own juice plant, and their own packinghouse. They wanted to hire me as the General Manager and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. So, David and I had a friendly parting of ways, and both went to work for other companies.
Thirty days after taking the job with Libby’s, Florida’s citrus succumbed to the hard freeze of 1983. That freeze basically wiped out Libby’s 10,000 acres. I stayed with them for 7 months and then we literally shut down the entire operation; we sold all the land, sold all the equipment, sold the juice plant, sold the packinghouse. Libby’s just vanished from the state of Florida.
UMO: That’s a lot to weather. (No pun intended.) We know it only gets more interesting from here.
Benny: Yes, it does, but here’s the good part. Remember Dave Gurney? Well, he went to work on a 10,000-acre citrus project in the Bahamas. I was offered a job as production manager and accepted. For the seven years I was production manager, I would fly out on a Monday morning and return back to Florida on Friday. In 1992, the project folded and I became an international consultant. While I was in the Bahamas, Florida had another freeze in 1989 that wiped out anything else that had been replanted. Companies began relocating citrus projects to Central America and asked me to assist them in purchasing the land, clearing it, and planting it in citrus trees. Two of the largest companies even built juice plants and exported the juice back to the U.S. So I worked in 7 different countries for 10 years.
UMO: That lasted from 1992-2002. Didn’t you become an organic farming convert within that timeframe?
Benny: We founded Uncle Matt’s in 1999. When I was not in Central America, I was working with Matt starting up our own organic citrus operation. The first Uncle Matt’s certified-organic grove was at my house. We began transitioning my grapefruit and pummelo groves to organic in 1996 and those groves were certified in 1999.
UMO: What made you passionate about converting to organic?
Benny: I was fascinated by the science of building nutrient density in citrus fruit using only organic farming methods. I wanted to find out if we could build the nutrient density in our fruit to a level that no one had ever achieved. Also, I was excited to become an organic citrus farmer in the state of Florida when all my peers told me growing citrus organically in the state of Florida couldn’t be done successfully.
UMO: Why did they say that?
Benny: Weeds and bugs.
UMO: What were the greatest challenges during those start-up years?
Benny: Everything we did was a challenge. I had to literally re-learn how to grow citrus in the state of Florida. Before World War II, the land grant universities taught “The Albrecht Method of Soil Balancing,” which is what my father learned. After the war, they did away with the teaching in favor of “pH” method, which I learned. While my dad was my mentor, we still knocked heads daily on which method was more effective. He would say to my face, “You do not understand soil chemistry, physics and biology. All you learned was ‘What is the pH of the soil?’ And you’re going to be an old, gray-haired, burned-out citrus grower if you don’t understand the chemistry of the soil.”
UMO: So, did you become an Albrecht Method believer?
Benny: Funny, my dad wasn’t the only one who influenced my thinking about The Albrecht Method of Soil Balancing. During the Bahamian project, I met Neil Kinsey and he invited us to one of his conferences. He studied The Albrecht Method from Dr. Albrecht himself and earned his Master’s Degree in Soils from the University of Missouri. After learning The Albrecht Method from Neil Kinsey, I had a complete change in my thinking about soil balancing, much to my dad’s delight.
UMO: How did The Albrecht Method affect the way you grew organic citrus in Florida?
Benny: First of all, I began studying soil chemistry, physics and biology. I was first able to apply the method in Central America where the soil was not conducive to growing citrus at all. Once I applied Kinsey’s formulas, the soil produced tremendous results in a short period of time. As Florida began to rebuild the citrus industry after the freezes, I had confidence in this new system to be able to grow organic citrus in the state of Florida — although I had never grown it that way. The science behind The Albrecht Method became the cornerstone of the Uncle Matt’s farm plan and was used, at our peak, on the 1,500 organic citrus acres we managed statewide.
UMO: How many growers did you help transition to organic?
Benny: About 25. We lost some along the way because certain growers couldn’t stand the weed pressure and in an organic program, we don’t use synthetic herbicides to kill weeds.
UMO: How do you control the weeds in Florida’s humid, sub-tropical climate?
Benny: We had to go back to the way we controlled weeds in the ‘50s and ‘60s, which was with hoe machines and off-set mowers and choppers. It doesn’t control the weeds as well as conventional herbicides, but it’s good enough for us.
UMO: Let’s transition the conversation over to Uncle Matt’s flagship product: orange juice. Lately, OJ has gotten some negative press about being a high-glycemic food. What’s your response to the negative press and why?
Benny: I’m not an expert on what I’m about to say, but I have researched it. It’s the difference between fructose and sucrose. The sugar that is in an orange is fructose, and the sugar from sugar cane is sucrose. When you get sugar out of orange juice, it does not spike insulin levels anything like white sugar that you get from sugar cane.
UMO: We all know Vitamin C is one of orange juice’s primary health benefits, what are some other ancillary benefits?
Benny: Besides Vitamin C, orange juice supplies potassium, folate, magnesium, thiamin, Vitamin B6, as well as beneficial phytonutrients and carotenoids. Surprisingly, there are also Omega 3 oils in orange juice. It was an eye-opener for me and the study came out of a lab that the Department of Citrus uses. We are in the process of trying to get those findings peer-reviewed and published.
UMO: What is a “flavor packet” and why doesn’t Uncle Matt’s use them?
Benny: Used by some orange juice manufacturers, flavor packets help ensure flavor consistency while creating a more-pronounced aroma for the juice. One ingredient in flavor packets is peel oil that is extracted out of the peel when the orange is squeezed.
The problem with about 10% of the population is that they can’t drink orange juice because it upsets their stomach, giving them heartburn and indigestion. My dad believed that the peel oil in flavor packets was the culprit. So, if you leave the flavor packet out of your orange juice, your chances for an upset stomach are diminished. Sure enough, every trade show that we attend where we give out juice samples, there will be a handful of people that won’t drink our juice for this reason. I challenge them, saying, “Here’s three ounces of our juice. I want you to drink Uncle Matt’s and go walk around for an hour or two before you come back my booth and tell me if you got heartburn.” Not one person has ever come back saying they got heartburn! In fact, it’s just the opposite. These people come back to us and say, “Wow, you’re absolutely right. Your juice tastes great and I don’t have indigestion. I don’t have heartburn.”
It’s amazing, really. We’ve been doing this for over 15 years and we’ve never used flavor packets.
UMO: What are you most proud of as you span your 50+ years of work experience in the citrus industry?
Benny: The opportunity I’ve had to be a father, husband, father-in-law and grandfather trumps anything I’ve done in my professional life.
UMO: (laughing) But if you had to answer….
Benny: That’s a tough one. I’m doing what I love and I love what I’m doing. Right now, I’ m learning to grow organic crops, like green beans and turmeric, that I didn’t have any previous experience in.
We tend to judge someone’s success on whether or not they made money doing it. I try to downplay that because I don’t think that’s the way we should judge success. I think it’s more “what did you do with the time you were allotted? And how many people did you influence? How many people did you help?” So answering those questions are what I live by and am most proud of. Answering the call to farm organically fits into that paradigm because I know I am producing something that helps people and is good for them nutritionally.