Meet the Grower: Jim Lee
Grove Location: North of Clermont, Florida in Lake County
Uncle Matt’s Grower Since: 2005
Crops: 7 acres of Sunburst tangerines, 3 acres of Orlando Tangelos, 10 acres of navels, 9 acres of Red Grapefruit, 10 acres of Valencia oranges, 1 acre of garden variety and Fall-Glo tangerines
Acreage: 40 acres
Jim Lee has been working with citrus growers since 1957. For two decades, he worked as a professional engineer as an irrigation specialist for both tractor and sprinkler companies.
In 1975, he lost his job, but found the heart to start his own business called Jim Lee and Associates — an engineering corporation specializing in everything irrigation. It was during this time as a small business owner that Jim ventured into owning citrus groves.
In 2005, Jim began the three-year process of transitioning his 40 acres of citrus over to organic. Today, Jim lives with his wife, Alene, in Altamonte Springs, Florida.
UM: What made you want to become a citrus grower after owning your own engineering business?
Jim Lee: After so many years of working with citrus people, I knew the industry. I had worked with growers as an irrigation consultant and spent a lot of time chatting and visiting with them about their groves. Being around the groves made me want to own some of my own. Buying my first grove in Lake County was kind of like a dream come true.
UM: Was it difficult to take the step to purchase your first grove?
Jim Lee: Actually, I was afraid to do it for many years. Thankfully, only seven years after starting my own engineering business, I found myself in a position to purchase the groves for a giveaway price after the hard freezes of ’81 and ’82. We planted 30 acres of navels, grapefruit and Valencias right away and an additional 25 acres a short time later.
UM: What do you enjoy most about owning groves?
Jim Lee: I enjoyed caring for the groves myself. The caretaking aspect of the groves became a hobby of mine – not one that paid all the bills but groves were nevertheless successful.
UM: Are the trees you planted in ’82 the same ones that Uncle Matt’s gets its fruit from today?
Jim Lee: Actually, they’re not. In ’89 it froze again, and that freeze killed all the trees.
UM: So you were one of the few growers who decided to replant in Central Florida…did you do anything different the second time around?
Jim Lee: No, I just prayed a little harder! We actually only replanted 40 acres of the varieties we’re supplying to Uncle Matt’s today.
UM: Why did decide you to partner with Uncle Matt’s and go organic?
Jim Lee: I’ve known the McLean family since the early ‘60s and I believed it would be a good partnership. As I found out more about their philosophy on growing organic, I felt confident that they had done their homework and knew much more than anyone else about how to do it successfully. It seemed like other growers I’d talked to thought that all they had to do was put out a little chicken litter but it’s a lot more involved than that.
UM: So, are you happy with your decision to go organic?
Jim Lee: Yes, while I spend a lot more money maintaining the grove, I still think organic is best the way to go and I would encourage others to do it — it’s better for both the environment and our health.
UM: Since going organic, do you see a positive difference in the grove or the fruit?
Jim Lee: Actually, I do. Since going organic, I like the taste of my fruit better…and I feel confident that we’re doing the right thing for the grove.