For many folks, nothing starts the day better than a fresh glass of ice-cold orange juice. But beyond the local supermarket, how many of us think about the place where that orange juice originates? The people of Southern Gardens Citrus in Clewiston, Fla., think about it on a daily basis. Southern Gardens, located in south Florida, is the world’s largest supplier of 100 percent pure not-from-concentrate (NFC) orange juice to the private label industry and major brands. Southern Gardens offers an efficient, fully integrated process that takes homegrown oranges through processing and storage to the customer, according to the company’s president, Ricke Kress.
The bulk of Southern Gardens’ product is sold to customers who repackage it, so the company is focused on our customer’s needs. “We produce the products that our customers require, and since all customers have different needs, we pay close attention to their specific requirements,” Kress says.
It’s keeping consumers interested in orange juice that has been a recent challenge for Southern Gardens and the total citrus industry. The Atkins diet and other low-carbohydrate diets have affected consumption of orange juice, and sales are currently flat to declining, according to Kress. “Orange juice also competes in the total beverage category, which includes everything from water to soda to juice,” he relates.
However, “today’s consumer is very health conscious,” Kress adds. “Parents are concerned about their individual and family’s health, so we believe common sense and logic will always bring orange juice back into consumers’ minds.”
How it’s grown
Southern Gardens grows its oranges in its own private groves of over 21,000 acres near Lake Okeechobee in the center of southern Florida. Some three million trees are tended to in the grove, on land that was formerly prime pasture land. Kress explains that the grove’s location is ideal because of the mild winters in the area. This makes the trees less prone to winter freezes that could damage the trees and fruit. The Southern Gardens groves produce approximately six million boxes of Hamlin and Valencia oranges each year.
The company also sources a significant quantity of fruit each year from an established base of growers. These oranges are procured with single or multi-year contracts or purchased on the spot market.
During the growing season, Southern Gardens has quality control technicians on hand to evaluate the fruit for quality, which is based on the variety of the orange and its rootstock. Southern Gardens also utilizes computerized irrigation and fertilization systems that determine the exact amount of water and nutrients that are required to grow the best fruit.
However, citrus farming is not without challenges, one of the biggest of which is canker, a bacterial disease that causes lesions on the leaves, stems and fruit of citrus trees. Although canker is not a threat to people or juice safety, the disease weakens trees and leads to a reduction in field yields. According to Jim Snively, Southern Gardens’ Vice President of Agriculture, canker was most likely brought into Florida from outside the country. It is spread by wind and rain. Florida’s hurricane seasons have served to further spread the disease to many trees. “The only way to get rid of canker is to eradicate the infected tree,” Snively says. The state of Florida and the USDA are currently re-evaluating canker eradication and control procedures that will be utilized in the future.
Canker has been an issue for Southern Gardens’ over the past few years, and the company is currently trying to turn the problem around. “Our goal is to get the groves replanted within the next three to four years,” Snively says.
In addition, greening is another bacterial disease that can infect trees. Greening restricts the movement of nutrients through the tree, and is spread by an insect, the Citrus Psyllid. The insect will feed on one tree, then fly to another and infect that one. Infected trees are identified and destroyed. There is presently no definitive cure for greening disease but there are available crop protection materials that are intended to provide control of the vector, Citrus Psyllid.
How it’s processed
After the oranges are picked, they are processed in Southern Gardens’ state-of-the-art processing facility. “The 12-year-old plant is the most efficient processing plant in the industry,” said Tris Chapman, the company’s Vice President of Operations.
First the oranges are gently washed to remove sand, leaves and twigs. The fruit is then conveyed to storage bins where it is tested for quality standards. It is then released for final washing and grading. After the fruit is sorted by size, FMC extractors separate the juice and pulp from the rest of the orange. The juice and pulp then go on to the finishers, which tailor the pulp content to customer specifications. The process then splits the stream of juice designated for either single strength (NFC) or concentrated (FCOJ) orange juice. NFC juice is pasteurized and chilled to 32 degrees. In the concentrated juice, 85 percent of the water is removed. The concentrate is moved through the chilling process, where it is chilled to 34 degrees and then blended to customer specifications. It is then chilled to 20 degrees and sent to tank farm storage. The concentrate is stored in 200,000-gallon bulk tanks, while the NFC juice is stored in one of the 56 million-gallon tanks in Southern Gardens’ plant.
One of the highlights of Southern Gardens’ processing operation is the single pasteurization system, according to Chapman. “We have a direct aseptic feed to the packaging operation, which allows us to only pasteurize the juice once,” Chapman says. “We’re currently the only processing plant that utilizes this step. Most plants pasteurize twice, but only doing it once improves the flavor of the juice,” he adds.
In the process of loading bulk tankers for delivery to the customers, the out of state tankers are slushed with nitrogen in a unique process that Southern Gardens invented along with its nitrogen supplier. “The top eight inches of juice are slushed, which keeps it cooler. Since our delivery tankers are insulated but not refrigerated, we find this system keeps the juice cooler and delivers it in better condition.” Chapman explains. “Southern Gardens was the first processor in the citrus industry and one of the first manufacturers of food products to be certified under the ISO 9001:2000 standard. Southern Gardens passed the certification audit in September 2001 and recertification audit in February 2005. Support from all levels of the organization was necessary to develop and implement a system that meets the requirements of this standard. The implementation of a quality management system that meets the requirements of the standard has both internal and external benefits. Some benefits include increased operational efficiency, improved documentation of procedures and responsibilities, improved training programs, and enhanced communication among employees.”
He adds: “Our employees take a great deal of pride in producing good quality orange juice within specification and delivering the bulk product to our customers all over the United States, on time.”
Growth despite setbacks
Despite some agricultural setbacks, Southern Gardens has continued to grow and prosper. The company has increased storage from 96,000 gallons in 1994 to 56 million gallons in 2005. In 1994, the plant was capable of processing 80 loads of fruit a day that increased to 190 loads in 2005. In 1994 Southern Gardens shipped 35 tankers of juice per week; that total topped 450 in 2005.
Growth and change continue to be important buzzwords around the company. For example, right now, about 80 percent of the oranges are harvested by hand. Within the next seven to 10 years, company officials hope to see all of the groves harvested mechanically. “We hope to be able to train our full-time employees to run the machinery,” Snively says. “We have a difficult time finding enough manual labor now, so mechanical harvesting will help us with that problem,” he continues.
“Right now, our biggest competitors are in Brazil,” says Snively. “They have lower cost labor and materials and less environmental regulations. When we can harvest mechanically, we’ll be able to compete better with Brazil.”
Kress believes there are several factors that will support Southern Garden’s future position in the citrus industry. First, he explains, the company owns its own groves and has a strong and supportive contract grower base that will only get stronger in the future and further ensure our supply of fruit. “We also have an efficient and modern processing facility that can be expanded as required and we have a dependable and committed group of suppliers and vendors that ensure that our business program runs smoothly.” In addition, Southern Gardens enjoys a solid customer base whose demand for NFC Orange Juice is also growing and exploring the potential for export sales. Finally, he says, “We are a division of the United States Sugar Corporation, which means there is solid financial support for the business, today and going forward.”
Most importantly Kress says, “We have the full commitment and support of our employees from the groves, the processing plant and administration that will serve to ensure a prosperous and favorable future. We have employees who have been with the company since it’s inception in 1994. On a continuous basis, there are frequent employee communication meetings to review the current business status as well as to solicit ideas for improvement from all of our employees. We may utilize the most modern equipment and processing methods but the most valuable asset we have is our people.”
Southern Gardens sees no reason why it will not maintain and build upon its already “healthy” reputation. “We’re the largest supplier to the private label industry and major brands in the United States, our growth has been consistent, we’ve increased capacity, and we have a solid strategic goal for the future. That’s what we want people to know,” Kress concludes.