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'A Better Way to Farm'

“I think you’ll see organic continue to grow 10% to 15% if we can see research to show consumers the health benefits.”

— Organic farmer Matt McLean
on the industry’s annual rate of growth

Nearly 15 years ago, a phone call from a German customer seeking organic grapefruit juice sent then-citrus exporter Matt McLean on a quest to find out why it wasn’t available in most U.S. grocery stores.

Today, McLean operates the state’s largest organic citrus operation. Uncle Matt’s, based in Clermont in Lake County, is celebrating its 10th anniversary, capitalizing on a trend that has seen sales of organic agricultural products jump from $1 billion nationally in 1990 to $20 billion in 2007.

The industry still has plenty of room for growth, McLean says. According to the Organic Trade Association, a group on which McLean serves as national vice president, only 2.8% of all U.S. food and beverage sales involve products grown organically. McLean’s company, like others in the industry, has recorded average growth of 15% to 20% per year, compared with 3% to 5% for conventional agricultural products.

A fourth-generation citrus grower who worked in the groves as a child, McLean has returned to the ways his grandfather and great-grandfather grew fruit before pesticides were readily available. When McLean started his company, his grandfather advised him to think about how to begin with healthy soil and healthy trees that can fight off pests without chemical interference.

Uncle Matt’s now owns about 500 groves and manages another 500 that are owned by other growers dedicated to organic practices. He employs 12 full time, including his parents. His brother and brother-in-law work there part time.

Uncle Matt’s sells the oldest brand of organic orange juice in the country. Because the products cost more than non-organic food, they are a tough sell during challenging times, McLean admits.

“At times we feel like we’re not-for-profit,” he says. “But we have a mission and a vision we stay true to. We think it’s a better way to farm.”