The journey of an organic juice brand
By Rachel Zegerius
“Uncle Matt” joined me on Zoom as a hurricane whipped rain onto the side of his office building. But that’s how fourth-generation citrus grower Matt McLean faces life and business: head on, with optimism. This characteristic has served him well when navigating the many twists and turns on the road to becoming the nation’s #1 selling brand of organic orange juice.
The McLeans launched Uncle Matt’s Organic in 1999; the business quickly expanded to include 35 Florida citrus growers and 1,500 acres of organically managed groves. With a blueprint to expand to 5,000 acres, they were committed to converting more farms and more groves to organic.
But, just 10 years after they got their start, Florida citrus production was brought to its knees by a tiny bug, a psyllid, and the bacteria induced citrus greening disease it carried. The greening disease eventually decimated two-thirds of Florida’s citrus production. Organic producers were not immune, and Uncle Matt’s Florida groves depleted to just 100 acres.
At the same time, as key investors pulled out, food industry (dairy) giant Dean Foods stepped in and offered to buy Uncle Matt’s Organic. It acquired the company in 2017 and kept Matt and most of his team on to manage production. But even with their 6,000 trucks, 17,000 employees, and an $8 billion annual budget, Dean Foods was not resilient enough to withstand changes in the dairy marketplace and eventually went bankrupt.
Uncle Matt’s Organic weathered the storm. Matt and his family teamed up with some heavy hitters in the organic consumer packaged goods industry, and together they bought the business back from Dean in the spring of 2020.
The company is now, once again, independently owned and operated. Matt’s wife, Susan, leads product innovation: It’s easier for a privately owned company to be more creative and nimble. Research and development continues on the groves in Florida, where Matt’s brother Ben is busying himself with finding a solution to citrus greening. (Oranges and other citrus fruit produced for Uncle Matt’s Organic are now grown on groves in Southern Texas, California, and the east coast of Mexico, where high summer temperatures kill off the bacteria responsible for greening disease.)
Through it all, the brand has remained unshaken. “We’re proud of the long-standing heritage of the Uncle Matt’s Organic brand,” shares McLean, “and the way we, as a company, continue to stay committed to our core values, including positively impacting the environment with organic farming practices to benefit the people and communities we touch.”
Find more brands like Uncle Matt’s on the Independent Brand Project page of cornucopia.org.
This article was originally published in the winter issue of The Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter. Donate today, and we’ll mail you the spring issue, filled with stories you won’t find anywhere else.