Jordan Farms, located in Dover, Florida, has been growing certified organic strawberries since 1999 on land that has been in the family for over 75 years. They combined a friend’s experience as a conventional strawberry grower with their own hands-on experience in organic growing to bring the best-tasting organic strawberry to the market. In the last year Jordan Farms has doubled their organic strawberry acreage increasing the availability of their tasty fruit.
Brooks worked on a blueberry farm as a teenager, enjoying life outside and the responsibility given to him by his boss. Later, while earning his degree in Quantitative Economics at East Carolina University, his former boss predicted that blueberry farming was in Brick’s future, even though he was not attending an agricultural school. Realizing that office life was not for him, Brick did indeed return to the land, starting his own blueberry farm in the town of Whiteville, North Carolina. He and his wife, Jennifer Blackmon Rooks, named it Southern Belle Organics.
The blueberries were initially grown conventionally, but to meet customer demand for organics and with some gentle encouragement from his wife, Brick converted the land to organic practices just a few years after starting. Brick’s farming, marketing, and business background combined with Jennifer’s love of interacting with the customers has led to their quick success.
As a young first generation farmer, Brick is proud to have built his business from the ground up (literally!). A self-proclaimed perfectionist, he oversees all aspects of production (growing, shipping, and packing) on the 60 plus acres of land. Southern Belle Organics currently offers certified organic blueberries from May through September, but Brick hopes to expand to blackberries, strawberries, and other fruits in the future.
With its subtropical climate and rich pest population, Florida has been slow to embrace the organic movement: fewer than 8,000 of its 541,328 acres of citrus groves are organic. Matt McLean has made it his mission to change that. As the founder and CEO of Uncle Matt’s Organic—the largest and oldest organic orange juice company in the U.S.—McLean not only sells delicious juices, he’s making it easy for other small Florida citrus growers to transition to organic.
Uncle Matt’s sells a huge quantity of organic orange and apple juices, lemonade and whole fruits to retailers such as Whole Foods and Publix each year. But its most innovative initiative is its agricultural management company. Uncle Matt’s Ag provides “one-stop shopping” for grove owners who want to go organic. The company actively recruits conventional farmers, handles all the paperwork for them throughout the transition and certification process, creates a full farm plan and oversees every aspect of caretaking, from riding the tractor to tamping down the weeds. Uncle Matt’s then markets all the grower’s fruit at top dollar, ensuring that organic farming is economically viable.
It’s a model that—with the help of a credit line from RSF—has fueled both consistent sales growth and positive changes in Florida agriculture.
McLean didn’t set out to be an organic grower. A fourth-generation Florida citrus grower, he grew up working in the groves, and escaped to college as soon as he could to get away from “manual labor in Florida’s summer heat.” After earning a business degree from the University of Florida, he started an import-export company, selling juice to companies in Europe. When one of his clients asked for biologic white grapefruit juice, he consulted his father and grandfather.
His grandfather, who had used organic methods in the past, insisted that “not only could we grow that way, we should be growing that way,” McLean says. “We are too focused on single-factor analysis—if you have a pest, then you’re told to find a pesticide. Instead, we should think holistically: why is that pest attracted and how can we help the trees’ immune systems defend against it through better soil and plant health? This is an organic farmer’s way of thinking.”
McLean started Uncle Matt’s Organic in 1999 with just five acres. As the company grew, it needed more fruit, which meant it also needed more organic farms. But farmers were hesitant, even afraid, to go organic—despite the fact that prices for organic fruit are consistently higher—and McLean knew he had to make the process as easy as possible. Thus Uncle Matt’s Ag was born in 2002.
One of the biggest challenges in persuading grove owners to grow organically was—and is—the threat of citrus greening disease, or Huanglongbing (HLB), a bacterial infection spread by gnat-size psyllids that can wipe out groves. It hit Florida in 2005 and has killed millions of citrus plants in the southeastern U.S. While Uncle Matt’s groves have not fully escaped the disease, several groves have proved 100 percent resistant—an anomaly the University of Florida is studying. Uncle Matt’s Ag is experimenting with nourishing root and soil health to keep disease at bay, and unleashing parasitic wasps into groves to keep the psyllids’ population under control.
With its innovative approaches to grove management and increasing consumer demand for organics, Uncle Matt’s has grown continually. But like many food and beverage companies, Uncle Matt’s faces a cash flow gap between the time when it pays farmers for the harvest and when the juice hits grocery stores and starts generating a profit. By 2011, McLean needed more financing.
The company had a line of credit with a local community bank, “but it was post real-estate bubble in Florida, and the banks were very risk-averse,” he says. So Uncle Matt’s hired McLean’s friend Aubrey Hornsby, a manager of the Conscious Capital Fund, to help it find additional funding. “Aubrey introduced us to RSF in September 2011,” says McLean, “and at that point a lot of things came together.”
Several members of the RSF lending team visited Florida, where they toured the groves, packinghouse and storage facility and closely examined Uncle Matt’s business model. “They understood our business right away,” says McLean, “and they really had a passion for our space and our mission.”
Aaron Bryson from Bryson family farms grew up on a conventional cattle farm and then went to get him an ed u mooo cation at the University of Florida where he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in agriculture and life sciences. Right out of college he went to work for a large conventional farm but he decided that didn’t work with his life plan. So- he started Bryson Farms, a certified organic vegetable farm in La Belle, FL and now enjoys the challenges and lifestyle of organic farming. He fills his days planning, planting, harvesting, shipping, selling and looking handsome. ;-)
Lady Moon Farms started in 1988 with 5 tillable acres and a dream. A dream that people can really change the world they live in! Tom and wife Chris were recently married city kids with children of their own about to embark on a dream that Tom had since gardening in his parent’s tiny backyard.
They wanted to smell the fresh country air, see the stars fill the darkened night sky, have animals of all sorts for their kids to grow up with and more than anything else grow food themselves. Food that they knew was grown with love and care for the oil and earth. Food that would be free of dangerous chemicals because it never made sense to them why anyone would spray poisons on the food we eat. Food that would allow their children to grow strong and healthy.
Mitch Blumenthal acquired a ten-acre organic blueberry farm in 1995. As he tended to his Sarasota crop, he began to explore heirloom row crops, blackberries, and other unusual items. Soon, the ten acres of blueberries had evolved into ten acres of diverse, beautiful crops.
Recent harvests have included okra, snow peas, bull’s blood beets, baby corn, popcorn, persimmons, herbs, and sugarcane. This serene, lush farm nourishes the body and soul.