A successful dairy farmer, Dale McClellan of Thonotosassa, Fla., helped to start a milk-marketing cooperative and developed his own milk and fruit juice processing plant.

He is known for the fat-free, sugar-reduced chocolate milk he delivers to Florida schools.

As a result of his dairy farming and milk marketing success, McClellan has been selected as the Florida winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. McClellan now joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

At his dairy in Lecanto, Fla., he milks some 700 cows three times daily with a rolling herd average of about 23,000 pounds of milk per year. His farm consists of 1,272 acres, including 952 acres of rented land and 320 acres of owned land.

Cow comfort is a priority. McClellan’s barns currently feature waterbeds along with fans and misters for the cows. He is exploring the use of sand bedding. Research shows that cows on sand produce clean milk and suffer from fewer leg and hoof problems.

He recycles dairy waste by separating solids for application on non-irrigated land and by applying the liquid through his irrigation.

McClellan grows much of his own feed, including Tifton 44 bermudagrass hay on 80 acres yielding 3.5 to 5 bales per acre. The long growing season allows him to triple-crop 250 irrigated acres. This system includes oats yielding 4.5 tons of forage per acre, followed by two crops of corn that produce a total of 40 tons of silage per acre.

When possible, he grows feed products that are the most expensive to buy and buys feeds that are inexpensive to purchase.

The milk marketing cooperative he helped to establish, Premier Milk, is based in Ocala, Fla. McClellan says the cooperative pays a premium to its 13 farm members for superior quality milk. The co-op works to obtain higher milk prices, and it insures that his milk will have a home. The cooperative also provides milk supplies that he buys for processing and packaging at his M & B Products Tampa facility.

Born into farming

“I never really had to start farming,” says McClellan. “I was born into it. I milked my way through high school.” He was raised on Sunny Brook Dairy, a Tampa farm and milk processing facility owned by his grandparents. In fact, both his mother and his father came from dairy farming families.

When Sunny Brook encountered financial difficulties in the late 1970s, the cattle were sold, and McClellan was able to lease the farmland and start his own dairy with 500 head that had been owned by his grandparents. “I was 23 years old, my family was broke and my grandfather was in tears,” he recalls. “That gave me the determination to become successful in dairy farming and in milk processing.”

Sunny Brook’s processing facility closed in 1979.  McClellan refurbished the plant with new equipment and refrigeration, and he reopened it as M & B Products in 1987. In 2003, he moved the cattle from Hillsborough County to Citrus County. The Hillsborough farm now supplies hay for the new farm.

With 140 dedicated, hard-working employees, M & B Products is a milk-processing pioneer. Some of its innovations include reducing the sugar and fat in flavored milk delivered to Florida schools before it became mandatory. He sells the fat removed from the milk to a firm that produces ice cream.

“Our milk is marketed as a ‘Fresh from Florida’ product,” he says. The facility also processes citrus and other fruit juices that he markets throughout the eastern U.S. to schools and to institutions such as prisons and hospitals. He sells the juice products under the Mr. J brand and the milk products under the Cool Cow brand.

“We market our products by being innovative in our flavors, packaging, sizes and vitamin and calcium fortification,” he adds. “We are giving school children the extra nutrition their growing bodies need.”

One of his goals is to increase the number of cows he milks to 1,500. He is exploring the possibility of using methane gas digestion to generate electricity on his dairy farm.

He wants to work with community organizations and other owners of fleet vehicles to operate delivery trucks on compressed natural gas. He also hopes to use the wastewater from his processing plant to irrigate the bermudagrass he grows in the nearby fields. He uses this bermudagrass for hay and for pasturing some of his dry cows.

When local opponents objected to his plans to start a dairy farm near Lecanto, McClellan took time to meet with them and answer their questions. This experience led him to become active in Farm Bureau and other agricultural groups. He served for several years as a director and president of the Hillsborough County Farm Bureau.

McClellan has been active in a number of organizations. Some of these include Temple Terrace Chamber of Commerce, Florida School Nutrition Association and the Temple Terrace Masonic Lodge.

He has advised members of Congress on agricultural issues. He is a founding member of the 301 House, a rehabilitation facility for alcoholics. He is also a supporter of youth sports teams, Ag in the Classroom, 4-H and FFA.

In Citrus County, his leadership has helped to make agriculture a part of the mainstream through his hard work in organizations such as the Agricultural Alliance, Economic Development Council and Chamber of Commerce.

He met his wife Mary when she worked at the Sunny Brook processing plant. Mary has been active in parent-teacher organizations and served as a team mom for Little League. She worked off the farm in school nutrition and retired after her first grandchild was born. They are members of Hillsborough United Methodist Church

Three sons in the business

The McClellans have three adult sons and all are involved in the family businesses. Leon manages the dairy farm. Bryan is the distribution manager for the processing plant and insures that delivery trucks reach Florida schools in a timely manner. Daniel is the shipping manager at the processing plant and oversees shipments to out-of-state customers. Daniel’s wife Andrea manages the plant’s office and is Dale’s executive assistant.

Joshua Craft with Florida Farm Bureau is the state coordinator of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Ray Crawford, recently retired assistant director of field services with Florida Farm Bureau, nominated McClellan for the award.

“Dale is a down-to-earth, super guy and worthy of this award,” says Crawford. “I admire his leadership in Farm Bureau, how he started his processing plant, how he and another guy started the milk marketing co-op and how he operates his farm.”

As the Florida state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, McClellan will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative, and the choice of either $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed, or a $500 donation to a designated charity on behalf of our newest sponsor, Dow Agrosciences.

He is now eligible for the $15,000 that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative, and the choice of either another $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed, or a second $500 donation to a designated charity on behalf of our newest sponsor, Dow Agrosciences.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 23rd consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $884,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.

Previous state winners from Florida include: Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1990; Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1991; Wayne Wiggins of Plant City, 1992; Leroy Baldwin of Ocala, 1993; Billy Long of Apopka, 1994; Richard Barber of Ocala, 1995; Al Bellotto of Lakeland, 1996; Rex Clonts of Apopka, 1997; John Hoblick of DeLeon Springs, 1998; Doug Holmberg of Valrico, 1999; Damon Deas of Jennings, 2000; Gene Batson of Mount Dora, 2001; William Putnam of Alturas, 2002; Sonny Williamson of Okeechobee, 2003; Dale Sauls of Anthony, 2004; Louis “Red” Larson of Okeechobee, 2005; Damon Deas of Jennings, 2006; Alto “Bud” Adams of Ft. Pierce, 2007; Randy Strode of Longwood, 2008; Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, 2009;  John Hundley of North Palm Beach, 2010; and Ron St. John of Trenton, 2011.

Florida has had six overall winners: Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1991; Leroy Baldwin of Ocala, 1993; Rex Clonts of Apopka, 1997; Doug Holmberg of Valrico, 1999; Louis “Red” Larson of Okeechobee, 2005; and Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, 2009.

A distinguished panel of judges will visit McClellan’s farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 5-10.

The judges for this year include Charles Snipes, a retired Mississippi Extension weed scientist who is president and research scientist with Stoneville R&D, Inc., from Greenville, Miss.; John McKissick, a longtime University of Georgia Extension ag economist from Athens, Ga., and farmer Brian Kirksey of Amity, Ark., who was selected as the overall winner in 2008.