Uncle Matt’s Organic Revolutionizes Florida’s Citrus Groves
Jul 31 2014
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.”
Based on this, RSF provided a $1.2 million line of credit that Uncle Matt’s uses to finance the juice inventory from season to season—and keep growing.
For the past three years, Uncle Matt’s sales have grown 20 to 30 percent annually. The company has also introduced two new juice blends, orange-mango and orange-tangerine, and has expanded to new retailers including Safeway, Kroger, Fred Meyer and Walmart Neighborhood Markets.
But the greatest proof of success is in the groves: In the last 12 years, Uncle Matt’s has converted more than 1,500 acres in Florida’s Lake, Highlands and Polk counties to organic cultivation.
“I started Uncle Matt’s as a business challenge,” says McLean. “But my grandfather’s passion just kept me thinking, ‘Hey, this is a better way to farm and we need to be a leader.’”