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.”

Will taste better

He thinks the new Florida tangerines will taste better than either the Cutie or the Clementine.

“We have two big advantages Spain and California can’t take away from us: We’re closer to the equator and we get more rainfall. Our fruit will ripen a month or six weeks earlier than either of those. Because of the additional rainfall, our tangerines will be much juicier and overall larger fruit. When we get this in gear, it will really make a splash in the marketplace over the next three to 10 years.”

Intriguing possibility? Certainly. More intriguing, perhaps, is why Roe persisted with its breeding project for 2-1/2 decades. Developing new citrus varieties entails considerably more work and patience than crops like strawberries or corn; it can take as much as a decade to get a tree to the decision stage.

“It takes 10 years to grow the first real crop from a tree, then two more years for the state to clean up the budwood, then four more years to get an acre producing,” Gee says.

“After that you’re ready to start looking at more acreage, but it’s slow. If you’ve seen it on one acre, you’re not about to haul off and plant it on 5,000 acres. So, what we have is 10 acres here in the Winter Haven area, 10 acres in the Indian River area and 10 more at Lake Placid.

“Then four or five years later, you have a commercial quantity — but it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to what you need to develop a market.”

Roe hopes to plant some 50 and 100-acre blocks with the new tangerines beginning next spring.

Gee works as operations manager of William G. Roe & Sons, Inc. April, is chief financial officer of Noble Juices, and pays a lot of attention to marketing.

“Our target area is the Eastern Seaboard,”April says. “California has the advantage west of the Mississippi; Spain has the advantage in Europe and northern Africa. For us, the Eastern Seaboard is easy to get to.

“For the new smaller tangerine varieties, we’re going to use interesting packaging that retailers love and consumers like. It’s a five-pound carton, a cardboard crate that has a unique look.”

Roe positions itself as a ‘green’ company. That doesn’t mean it’s an organic grower, but an environmentally responsible one.

“We were the first to use a biodegradable eco-friendly bottle made from plants, and we make them here, as well,” April says.The bottle won the Produce Marketing Association’s Impact Award for Excellence in Packaging in 2008.

“It’s been neat to see the bigger companies in the business get onto it after we did, because consumers were requesting it,” she says. “Green is something consumers recognize and is a great play for us.”

While the bigger competitors seem engrossed in selling ever-more-exotic blends, Roe will continue to hang its hat on pure juice.

“That fits well into what we as a company do,” April says. “We’ll rely on the branded pure juice product. It’s high quality, something we can be proud of, the same brand marketed over four generations from this family.”

Even with that background, though, the Roes remain innovative. When blueberries began to look profitable in central Florida, they began packing them as well. 

“Blueberries have been great,” she says. “For the last 15 or 20 years, they have been a quickly expanding segment of Florida agriculture. We jumped on that seven or eight years ago. To date, 100 percent of the blueberries we sell have gone to the fresh market. At this time, we don’t have anything on the table for blueberry juices. Blueberries work well with our core business.”

Ever curious and entrepreneurial, the Roes partnered in an experimental ethanol plant adjoining their packinghouse. If successful, it will turn peels into biofuel.

“We already recycle our packaging waste,” April says. “We use the peel all the way through, as much as possible, but would like to use more of it. The ethanol plant is a neat experiment — it’s kind of a pet project, and it’s fun to be part of something different.

Looking for home run

“We haven’t been able to justify an investment in tried-and-true peel uses, so this is an experiment with what we can do in an ecologically friendly way. It’s one of those things we can try. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t — but it’s still fun. Eventually, we’ll hit a home run with something.”

Great-grandfather William G. Roe started in business as a teenager, chopping ice in the Hudson River in upstate New York, and selling it in New York City. After nearly drowning when he fell through a hole in the ice, he decided to make a change and stay off the frozen river.

Those relationships made by selling ice to produce markets gave him a start in the fruit business, and he began marketing nectarines, peaches and plums grown in New York state. Before long, he wanted something to sell during winter months and settled on Florida citrus. By 1920, he had moved operations to Winter Haven.

“He was a master of marketing,”April says. “He developed all these different labels from the 1920’s into the 1950’s so he could sell multiple products in the same marketplace, all up and down the Eastern Seaboard.  The Noble label we still use is one he designed. Blue Lake, still being used, is another one of his.

“He understood marketing and became totally focused on Florida citrus. He figured out that he could price products differently under different labels, for different buyers. He built this packinghouse in 1924 alongside the railroad, and it’s still basically the same packinghouse that he built. It’s a little slice of history close to our hearts.”

William G. Roe died in 1953 and, in 1963, was inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. His sons, Willard and Fred, took over the business, splitting responsibilities. Fred eventually left the company and died in 1988. Willard continued and died in 2006. He was inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame in 1992.

Willard’s sons, Bill, as chief operations officer, and Quentin, the chief executive officer, head the company’s efforts. Their brother, Morgan, returned to the company about a year ago, heading the juice division, after devoting several years to missionary work. Their sister, Ellen, plays a key role in managing the office.

April and Gee and a younger brother, Geoff, who now works in grove operations, are Bill’s children. Their cousins Eric and Adam, Quentin’s children, also work with the company. Their mother, Carol, and Bill’s wife, Lori, co-own Noble Food Service and market juice and some fresh products to food service companies and distributors.

“Mom and Lori also rally the troops,” April says, though rallying must not be too hard, with gung-ho troops like these.

“This business is our passion,” April says. “We have a romantic attachment to Florida citrus, and it’s a privilege to be part of it. We do think we’re on the cusp of a revolution, if what we think is going to happen with tangerines really does occur. It’s exciting — we come to work every day happy to be right here.”