by Terese Allen, Food Editor
Roper Growers Cooperative is housed in a squat, red-brick structure near the historic center of Winter Garden, Florida. When I met with vice president and general manager Charlie Roper there last spring, all window shades were drawn against the bleached light and hot wind of midday in the Sunshine State. Charlie, who runs the cooperative from a small office in the back of the building, represents the fifth generation of a family that has been intertwined with the area's citrus industry for nearly 100 years.
Charlie has chocolate eyes, close-cropped hair that's going salt-and-pepper at the temples, and the I-got-away-with-it grin of a disarming juvenile delinquent. A compact, confident man, he talked with me about family history, the ups and downs of growing oranges, and the Ropers' unique relationship with Organic Valley.
The Roper family is deeply rooted in the Florida orange growing culture. How did it all get started?
My great-great grandfather, W.C. Roper, came here to homestead in 1857. He eventually became the first county school superintendent, among other things, but at first he was a vegetable grower and raised cattle. The orange groves came later, but he's the one who got the land near Winter Garden.
You have many ancestors in the orange industry, but let's go right to your father's generation.
My father, Bert Roper, worked with the area's growers cooperative until the mid-1980s or so. Because of the freezes in the '80s a lot of growers had moved farther south or had to sell out. We didn't have the volume in this area anymore—citrus was dying in Central Florida and the small guys couldn't afford to do it anymore. My dad saw the writing on the wall and we started into organics in the early 1990s. We became certified organic in 1998. Across the board the industry is very chemical-oriented, but there are exceptions. We are not the only organic citrus growers in Florida but one of a very small number.
How did you come to partner with Organic Valley?
For a while we had more product than we could sell—we were selling it anywhere we could, even in Japan and Europe. We even had to sell some as conventional juice. Another producer told us about Organic Valley and eventually they came here to check us out. It was a good fit.
Well, we already had all the pieces of the puzzle—the land, the trees, the caretaking knowledge, how to harvest, process and store—but we had only done wholesale. We hadn't been in the retail market and we hadn't done national marketing. Organic Valley was the tool that allowed us to have ownership and also national distribution. And Organic Valley knew that they didn't know about citrus production, so we were both looking for the piece the other one had.
You're really a co-op within a co-op, aren't you?
Yes, there's about twelve growers in Roper Growers ' Cooperative. We joined the Organic Valley co-op as one member. It's another reason why it works--both sides know the co-op end of the business. The people we're working with at Organic Valley really have the farmers in mind. It's so nice not to have them come back to us every year and say, like others would, "How much cheaper can we get this?" Organic Valley says, "How much do you need?"
Sounds like your problems are solved!
(Laughs.) Not quite. It's still a rough business. First, there's harvesting issues—all the citrus is still hand-harvested and finding harvesters is getting harder every year. Second, weeds are still a huge issue—they grow twelve months out of the year down here, you know. And third, it's hard labor, this business.
Then there's the weather and the threat of disease, right?
Right. The freezes of the ‘80s changed everything, and more recently, the hurricanes [of 2004 and 2005] have pretty much devastated the Florida grapefruit industry. There were canker outbreaks [a viral disease that attacks trees] in 1980, 1990, the late 1990s and in recent years. The newest threat to citrus in Florida is a bacterial disease known as "citrus greening." This is a worldwide problem that's being researched by many people around the world trying to find a solution.
Tell us more about the orange juice itself. It really has remarkable flavor--how do you do that?
It's part of the nature of being organic—you're not pushing the oranges as hard, so the juice tastes better. It's the varieties we use—mostly Hamlins and Valencias—and how we formulate to stay within the right Brix range. The Brix level is a numerical, quantitative measurement of the amount of natural sugar in the juice. Our juice is 1 1/2 to 2 points higher than standard juice.
And as manager of the company, what's your life like?
I do ten different things in one day, and there is no typical day. I'm involved in every aspect of the business—organic certification, retail, Organic Valley—and I'm also in real estate and do property management. I like the mix. I like not having to sit at a desk all day. I have knowledge and skill and I like to apply it.
Your father Bert has passed the "Roper reins" to you, but I understand he's still involved in the business. What does he do?
He does whatever he wants to! Isn't that the way with dads!? Seriously, he's president and chairman of the board. If I need help he'll help me with anything—he has no problem rolling up his sleeves. He's having a lot of fun; he's very active in the community and the industry.
What's the most fun aspect of your work?
The people—customers, Organic Valley people, the people in the field, the buyers. This is a good industry in that we've got a great story to tell and people want to hear that story, and it's a story you can be proud of.
And the most frustrating part?
The most frustrating thing is Mother Nature. No matter how well you plan or how hard you work, Mother Nature can totally change everything. If you get a freeze, if you get a hurricane, you're done.
If that happens, then what do you do?
If it happens, you ride it out. You deal with what happened.
What do you do when you're not busy with work?
There's no not-busy time, but when I'm off I spend lots of time with my kids—we have three of them. When I'm free I like to hang out at the lake. I sail, I swim. I do wood-turning on a lathe. But there's really no non-busy time of the year for me.
Have you got any favorite orange juice preparations?
Citrus barbecue sauces are great. You can do orange juice marinades for pork, beef, seafood. You can use it in desserts and dressing. But mostly I just like to drink the juice!
One final question. Dare I ask? What's your favorite color?
Maybe I'm supposed to say orange, but it's purple. Which looks great with orange.