Central Florida once was known as the king of citrus. Despite the misfortunes that hit the industry, agriculture lives on in Lake and Sumter counties.
Writer: Chris Gerbasi
Not many people would have bet the farm on the future of agriculture in Lake County in 1990 A.F.—After Freeze.
A series of freezes in the 1980s, culminating with record-breaking low temperatures in December 1989, wiped out most of the citrus groves in Lake. Once the second-largest citrus-growing county in the state with 122,777 acres in 1980, Lake had just 8,766 acres of citrus groves as of 2016, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.
But agriculture has endured in many forms, with and without citrus. Tree farms, nurseries, livestock production, and landscaping services are plentiful throughout Lake and Sumter counties. The region’s agricultural future is now, from high-tech labs to classrooms, where students still learn the business through the Future Farmers of America program:
Cherrylake, 7836 Cherry Lake Road, Groveland.
Michel and Veronique Sallin know the impact of the 1980s freezes all too well. After their citrus groves were devastated in 1985, they replanted 10 acres with containerized ornamental trees and renamed the land Cherry Lake Tree Farm.
Cherrylake, as it’s been rebranded, now has 250 employees, 1,000 acres in Groveland, and 800 more acres around the state, making it one of the largest tree farms in the country, marketing director Chloe Gentry says.
Michel remained dedicated to farming because his father was an apple farmer in France.
“He had a will and a want to stay in agriculture,” says Chloe, adding that the Sallins’ son, Timothee, is president of family-oriented Cherrylake.
Cherrylake sells 49 varieties of trees and shrubs to new construction sites, including projects for Disney World and Universal Orlando. Popular varieties include live oak, palm, elm, maple, magnolia, bald cypress, and evergreen.
Business is thriving, Chloe says, but the company is tied to construction, so the housing bust hit hard a decade ago. Company leaders were confident, however, the market would come back.
“The game of agriculture is a game of patience and vision,” Chloe says. “You need a vision of what the market will be eight, nine, 10 years out.”
Branching out into landscape contracting and maintenance also helped the company.
“Diversification is so important because we don’t control a lot of factors,” Chloe says. “We don’t control the weather or the market, or disease and pests, and we’ve experienced all of that.”
Uncle Matt’s Organic, 1645 E. Highway 50, Suite 102, Clermont.
By the mid-1980s, the McLean family had been citrus growers for several decades. But after a freeze in 1983, Benny McLean and his father, Ben, lost every tree on their 550 acres.
As they drove through the wasteland, Benny’s father told him: “One day, you’re going to look back and say, ‘I just can’t believe all the opportunities that came to me after this disaster.’”
The words proved prophetic. Benny went on to become an international growing consultant, working with novice growers in the Bahamas and seven Central American countries.
Benny’s son, Matt McLean, then started Uncle Matt’s Organic in 1999, spearheading a new market in Florida for organic products, such as fresh fruit, juices, and flavored water. Benny is head of production over 800 acres, and also grows red navels, valencias, honeybell tangelos, red grapefruit, and pummelos on his own farm on top of Sugarloaf Mountain.
Uncle Matt’s oversees independent growers in Lake, Polk, and Highlands counties. Ongoing problems with greening disease have taken a toll—organic farmers are no more immune to it than conventional growers—but Benny sticks with citrus. He jokes that he’s not smart enough to do anything else, but family tradition is the real reason.
Benny now has a dozen grandchildren, ages 3 to 21, learning how to work in the citrus fields.
“I have a passion for this,” he says. “It’s very rewarding to me as a grandfather to work out here with my grandkids. You have to understand the love of the soil, the love of the fruit.”
AG3, 19825 State Road 44, Eustis.
AG3 is a biological technology company that produces and sells tissue-culture liners—creating an exact replica of a “mother” plant and growing limitless duplicates from a single plant.
The company is one of just 15 or so tissue-culture labs in the country, marketing director Belynda Rinck says. With 90 employees engaged in year-round production, AG3 turns out about 9 million ornamental plants a year. All plants are made in the lab, so AG3 is not at the mercy of the seasons, and no outside materials are used—it’s a pure production facility.
“Everything we sell, we create right here,” says Belynda, wife of owner Mike Rinck.
When the plants are large enough to be harvested, they are planted in soil and allowed to root and grow to a height of three-to-five inches in greenhouses, she says. Then they are sold as liners in 72-cell packs to wholesale growers, such as nurseries and garden centers, in-state and around the country. Those growers potentially sell the plants to larger chains.
AG3 produces 500 varieties of plants and grasses, including perennials, bulbs, tropical foliage, and carnivorous plants, Belynda says. The company, which was incorporated in 1993, purchased a second lab in 2007 in Apopka, adding landscaped plants, aquatics, ferns, and more tropicals.
Over time, the business started flourishing, Belynda says.
“We made the turn about two years ago. With the economy coming back and the housing market coming back, people want more plants,” she says, adding that an improving housing market also has boosted AG3’s grass sales.
Brite Leaf Citrus Nursery, 480 County Road 416 S., Lake Panasoffkee
Anna and Nate Jameson started their citrus business in 1998 in Hillsborough County, where trees were plentiful. But in 2007, a state rule went into effect requiring all citrus nurseries to grow inside protected environments to limit the risk of disease.
So, the Jamesons decided to move their containerized citrus nursery to Anna’s home county of Sumter, where there was little citrus.
“Sumter has provided isolation from the citrus industry and, by default, from disease,” Anna says.
While she says citrus growers have become more optimistic this year about finding a solution to greening disease, Brite Leaf’s indoor operations can fully protect citrus from disease—as long as no one brings it in.
Brite Leaf, one of about 48 citrus nurseries in Florida, is “high-tech” out of necessity, Anna says. Brite Leaf is fully enclosed and climate controlled, so freezes are not an issue, and sanitation is a high priority. Automated machines hydrate the coconut fiber soil that is shipped in compressed bales from India. Other machinery allows irrigation and fertigation, or the injection of fertilizers, at the same time.
Brite Leaf grows 40 varieties of citrus trees, including orange, lemon, lime, and other exotic citrus varieties, and primarily sells to commercial grove owners. Sales have been flat because of greening disease in groves. But ornamental tree sales to homeowners and garden centers have helped offset the drop, Anna says.
“Homeowners are wanting citrus more than ever,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s the whole edible craze or the ‘I want to grow for myself’ idea.”
Future Farmers of America, Lake and Sumter schools
The Jamesons’ son, William, is the outgoing president of the state Future Farmers of America Association. New officers will be elected this month during the state convention at Orlando. William, who graduated in 2016 from South Sumter High School, plans to pursue an officer’s position at the national level or attend college.
Statewide, FFA membership is at an all-time high of 16,000, says Tim Edwards, an agriscience teacher at South Sumter and FFA advisor to both William and, 30-plus years ago, William’s mother, Anna.
About 220 students participate in South Sumter High’s two FFA chapters and a middle school chapter. Wildwood Middle High also has two chapters.
“I feel agriculture has continued to thrive in Sumter; it has just changed its face,” Tim says. “We have seen the decline of vegetable and fruit farming, but an increase in nursery production and beef cattle production. Lawn and landscape services are considered a part of agriculture. The addition of all the golf courses in the county will also open another avenue under the agriculture umbrella.”
He also points to increased technology use at citrus tree nurseries such as Brite Leaf, Cutrale Farms in Webster, and Agromillora in Wildwood. This has shaped curriculum in the classroom as well with the addition of courses in biotechnology and unmanned aerial systems.
“I think the programs continue to thrive due to tradition, family, and a community that is interested in the industry,” Tim says.
In Lake County Schools, about 500 students participate in FFA or agri-technology programs at seven high schools and three middle schools, says Julie Summerlin, director of career technical education for the district.
“All the schools are very big on it,” she says. “Ag is very strong in the community and Lake County overall, both in the plant and animal competitions.”
Six high school chapters and two middle school chapters have won state championships in recent years in various categories, says Rickey Odom, an agriculture teacher and FFA advisor for 35 years.
Rickey built the ag program at South Lake High School, which has produced several state officers, and now is growing interest at Leesburg High.
“Agriculture has evolved greatly since citrus was king. We have changed to meet the needs of the changing economy,” Rickey says, referring to tree farms, nurseries, and lawn maintenance services catering to a growing population, and a thriving floriculture industry in the Golden Triangle area.
FFA membership is steady and gaining more urban students, though additional teachers are needed, he says.
The future of agriculture appears to be in the hands of today’s students.
“Many of our urban kids are thrilled by their attempts at growing gardens in class,” Rickey says. “Many of our students have never experienced growing their own garden. They are attracted to the agriculture classes because of the activities offered to them through the FFA program.”