Organic Farming Success: Uncle Matt's Organic Oranges

By Gretel H. Schueller, "Citrus Appeal," January/February 2014

Learn how Florida's Uncle Matt's Organics is successfully growing organic citrus fruit.

There’s something about the sharpness of citrus that our bodies just naturally crave this time of year. Maybe it’s an antidote to the haze of the recent food-filled holidays. From ultra-juicy Hamlin oranges to sweet honey tangerines, the fruits are in peak season now—it’s as if Mother Nature knew exactly when we’d most need a bright taste of sunshine.

When it comes to orange production, Florida leads the nation. There’s a good reason why it’s nicknamed the “sunshine state.” Florida’s biggest organic citrus grower is Uncle Matt’s Organic. The company oversees 1,500 acres of groves across Central Florida’s sandy “citrus belt.”

The family behind Uncle Matt’s Organic are the McLeans—10 members work for the company. “Uncle Matt” is CEO Matt McLean (who is a real-life uncle, times 10). The family’s expertise in all things citrus dates back to Matt’s great-grandfather, Angus Benjamin McLean, who grew organic citrus long before there were such things as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Matt started the business with three acres in his father’s backyard and has since built an economically and environmentally sustainable life for the family—and for more than 25 other organic Florida growers who are part of the Uncle Matt’s consortium.

Citrus growers haven’t had it easy. After the Florida freezes of the 1980s, many family growers lost their groves. More recently, another blow arrived: citrus greening disease is infecting citrus trees across Florida, Texas and California, resulting in billions of dollars of lost revenue. (The USDA has quarantines in nine states.) It turns fruit bitter and malformed, often killing the tree. A speck-sized insect called a psyllid spreads the bacterial disease as it flies tree to tree, sucking sap. The first symptoms may not appear for months, but the disease can spread quickly. Growers are scrambling to save their trees. Many are spraying with powerful pesticides and using a gene from spinach to develop genetically modified varieties that may be resistant.

At Uncle Matt’s, synthetic pesticides and genetically modified trees are not options. But the organic philosophy may be a winning one. “Our practices are based on building healthy soils that will yield a healthier tree so it can naturally defend itself against disease,” says Susan McLean, Matt’s wife and the company’s marketing director. Along with nutritional boosts to the soil (compost and seaweed emulsions), “we encourage biodiversity, including beneficial predators that control the psyllid.” Wasps and other insects buzz among the wildflowers and other natural ground cover. (At many conventional groves, these “weeds” would be cleared.) The McLeans have been successfully using parasitic wasps and lady beetles—which feed on the psyllid—as tools against the spread of the disease.

Here, in the heart of the grove, there’s a tranquility. Glossy leaves glint in the sun, birds flit through the branches and a delicate citrus fragrance drifts in the air. Here, healthy trees are making healthy—and delicious—fruit.

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