Here, Uncle Matt's Organic CEO Matt McLean explains how organic citrus fruit differs from conventional and offers tips on buying and storing it so you and your family can enjoy organic citrus all season long.
Q: How does organic citrus fruit differ from its conventional equivalent in terms of how it is grown?
A: Organic farming in Florida is much different than conventional. Our subtropical climate in Florida produces an average rainfall of 55 inches annually, with warm growing conditions eight to nine months out of the year. This is great for growing citrus, but the humidity and rainfall are conducive to pests, disease and weed growth. Organic farming differs from conventional in how we manage these challenges.
Conventional growers combat weeds with synthetic herbicides, often spraying the soil with the chemical glyphosate three to five times per year. Recent research has shown concern over glyphosate residues remaining in the soil and even existing in the plant. For organic weed control, we mechanically hoe (our version of a rotavator), hand hoe, offset mow or disc, and use mulch where appropriate. We have experimented with organic-approved herbicides that are botanical oil-based, but only use them sparingly due to high cost.
In regards to disease control, the conventional grower has a long list of synthetic pesticides to help combat fungal and bacterial diseases along with pest pressure from insects. Many of these conventional synthetic pesticides have strict restrictions on their use due to their inherent dangers and toxicity. Residues are always a major concern. In contrast, organic farmers use more natural products against disease and pests, such as neem oil, botanical oils, natural biologicals, and repellants like garlic.
Organic fertilizer practices also differ greatly from conventional. The most common conventional fertilizers applied to the soil in Florida citrus are ammonium nitrate, ammonium sulfate, and muriate of potash. These products are fast-acting, highly soluble, and can be easily over-applied, resulting in leaching of nutrients, excess vigor and tree growth. Research shows that a tree with excess vigor has a higher risk of disease and insect pressure. The organic fertilizer program, by contrast, consists of natural products like compost, feather meal, manures, and fish emulsion. Organic fertilizers release nutrients much more slowly and have less risk of leaching and contaminating the groundwater.
Q: Are there nutritional differences between organic and non-organic citrus products? If so, what are they?
A: There have been several studies showing the superior nutritional difference of organic versus conventional citrus. The best study was done by an Italian research team published in the Journal of Ag and Food Chemistry. Researchers compared the antioxidant levels, vitamin C, and nitrate levels between both farming methods. The organic oranges showed higher levels of antioxidants and Vitamin C while also having lower levels of nitrates. Lower average nitrogen levels can help reduce the formation of cancer-causing nitrosamines in the gut and lessen the risk of methemoglobinemia (blue baby disease).
Q: What should consumers look for when buying organic citrus?
A: For most varieties, you want the fruit to be firm. Look for any tears or holes in the fruit. The fruit will decay more quickly if there is a tear or hole from packing and handling. The most common area for decay is where the stem connects to the fruit. "Stem end" rot will cause problems with early decay and is normally caused by the picker when removing the fruit from the tree.
Q: What is the best way to store organic citrus? How long can it be stored?
A: Keep your citrus refrigerated at 35-40 degrees with normal humidity if your refrigerator has that capability. Grapefruit and oranges can last up to three weeks, but tangerines and tangelos keep for less than two weeks.
Q: Which types of organic citrus are best suited for eating fresh?
A: Regarding Florida citrus, the best eating varieties are navel oranges (November-February), any type of tangerine or tangelo (November-March), and dark red grapefruit (December-May). Satsuma mandarins are a good treat that are easy to peel with very few seeds (November-December.). The best citrus for juicing is the Florida Hamlin orange (November-February), and the Valencia orange (March-June). The Hamlin orange is light in color but one of the highest in Vitamin C and flavor. It was my grandfather’s favorite orange. The Valencia orange is known for its deep orange color and full orange flavor.
Q: Where are the primary growing regions for organic citrus?
A: Florida, California, and Texas are the three main states that grow organic citrus. Florida is known for having great juice flavor and high sugar content while not always being the best looking. California is known for its exterior quality and its easy peeling navels, while Texas has done a good job growing dark red grapefruit.
About Matt McLean
Matt McLean is a pioneer, agricultural activist and entrepreneur in the organic industry. Currently Vice President on the national Board of Directors for the Organic Trade Association (OTA), he helps shape the policies and standards for the organic industry.
His passion for farming and his steadfast commitment to the organic life led Matt to create Uncle Matt’s Organic, Inc. in 1999, one of the fastest growing organic juice and fresh fruit brands in the U.S. Prior to that, Matt managed his own juice brokerage business that exported juice to Europe and the Middle East.
A seventh generation Floridian, Matt’s citrus roots date back four generations to his great grandfather who farmed without the use of harmful pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Today, Matt, also known as “Uncle Matt”, manages over 1,000 acres of organic citrus along with his father and other family members. Fully integrated from farming to manufacturing to marketing, he also serves as a consultant for farmers wishing to convert to organics.
In Matt's spare time, he enjoys football, basketball, triathlons, skiing and tennis. He lives in Clermont, FL with his wife and daughter.