April Roe Porter and her brother,Gee Roe, settle into a meeting room at their Winter Haven, Fla., packinghouse, looking dead-on at a board filled with fruit labels developed by their great-grandfather William G. Roe as far back as the 1920’s.

The labels serve as an ever-present reminder of the value of innovation and the tricky balance between tradition and an entrepreneurial spirit.

As the fourth generation of the Roe family in the business, their Florida citrus bloodlines run to the industry’s early days. At the same time, they know that can’t carry them successfully into the future.

“The industry has changed in some ways — and we had to change with it,” says April, who graduated from Emory University with a finance degree and worked as an investment banker before joining the family business.“But what made our company a success hasn’t changed — that’s providing the marketplace with things nobody else is doing well, or even doing at all.

“We’re a commercial niche operation. We’re bigger than boutique but we’re not slugging it out with the big guys. We’re not Tropicana, but we’re not a roadside operation either,” says Gee, who graduated from Amherst College with an economics degree and played on the football team there.

As a grower and shipper, William G. Roe and Sons, Inc., has long focused on tangerines, while also selling fresh oranges and other specialty citrus products. Since the mid-1990’s, the company’s Noble product line concentrated on 100 percent tangerine juice and also blended it with mangos, Clementines, guavas, cranberries and blood oranges. In addition, Noble markets organic citrus juices.

With an eye on the market explosion of the California “Cutie” and Spanish Clementines, the younger Roes think Florida’s tangerine business could soon take off.  To do that,  Florida growers need an easy-peeling seedless tangerine variety that grows well in the humid climate.

University and USDA breeders are trying to develop suitable varieties. The Roes, however, think they have their own, based on more than two decades of private research.

“We stumbled across one or twovarieties that did pretty well here, and 25 years ago we started to do private cross-breeding, hoping for some seedless, easy-to-peel varieties,” Gee says. “Now we have four or five that look like they have proven potential.

“We don’t have any ready to harvest yet, but fruit from these trees should be going to market in two or three years. University of Florida has the most extensive selection of varieties, but the question is how they’re released to the industry — who gets them, how much they get, what the royalty is, that kind of thing. The varieties we’ve developed are ours.”

Roe now grows about 30 acres of the new tangerine varieties in several locations across the state.

“We like what we’re seeing,” Gee says. “I’m not sure that the other varieties being developed have the look and feel of a ‘Cutie,’ but ours do. One of ours is a dead ringer for the Clementine, too.”