Ric Freeman of P.H. Freeman & Sons – Third generation
People who know a little something about growing citrus north of Orlando
can tell you all about the game changer that happened in the 1980s.
It’s all about the freezes.
Ric Freeman is a third-generation citrus grower, harvester, broker
and juice manufacturer. His grandfather, who had previously
been one half of a citrus partnership, founded P.H. Freeman
& Sons in 1968. Ric's father moved from a production manager
position at Minute Maid to the company, and Ric has been working full
time there since 1978. He took over harvesting in 1980. As president of
the company, Freeman says that an industry-altering freeze can’t
stop him from doing what he loves, where he wants to do it.
“My timing in getting to harvesting was just great,” he
said. “We were doing a million, million-two boxes all right around
Winter Garden. Then the ’80s freeze hit, and the next year we went
down to – I think the lowest of the ’80s was 50,000
boxes,” Freeman said. “It’s hard to survive when you
go from a million to 50,000.”
But survive they did.
Freeman began an association with a small fresh-squeezed orange juice
plant that was right behind his office. “I started buying fruit
for them and they started growing, and kept growing, and I grew with
them,” he said. “I did well, and started planting groves
back and started reinvesting what I was making. We brought P.H. Freeman
The ’80s were tough, but Freeman and the company came back and
now harvest close to a million boxes a season in five counties.
“Most of my own personal groves are in Lake County. But I harvest
in Lake, Orange, Osceola, Polk and Hardee,” he said.
As a part of re-inventing P.H. Freeman & Sons, Ric Freeman
re-established his friendship and business relationship with the people
who owned the fresh juice plant years after they had sold it. They were
interested in getting back into the citrus business. The group bought
Lambeth Groves, a large fresh juice brand that mainly sells to hotels
Success is in knowing your talents
“I like growing, but I don’t caretake. I have a company.
My biggest customer, as far as the harvesting, is my caretaker –
the Beck brothers,” said Freeman. “I do enjoy the growing
part, but I don’t get into the spraying and all that. I also like
the buying and selling. I’ve just always enjoyed moving and
handling fruit,” he said.
“The best thing I ever did for myself was admit that I
didn’t have a green thumb and it was better to hire somebody who
did. The Becks have done a wonderful job caretaking. It’s a good
relationship that’s made us both money.”
In addition to his company responsibilities, Freeman is also an
industry leader, serving on the board of directors of organizations such
as the Florida Farm Bureau and Florida Citrus Mutual.
Not a worry-free situation
Not surprisingly, what keeps Freeman up nights the most is the
possibility that freezes like those in ’80s could recur. A few
nights over the past couple of years were dicey.
“I know what cold weather can do,” Freeman said.
“You can be on cloud nine one morning and then … We
didn’t know [the freeze of] ’89 was going to be bad until
around noontime. So a cold night can jump on you real fast. And it can
devastate you. I have had multiple million-dollar nights [of losses],
and it’s a hard pill to swallow. I’ve had to walk in and
fire three full-time men at one time just to survive. You have good
people you have to tell, ‘I’ve got to go a year without
Canker and greening have recently become a big concern for Freeman.
“We started fogging way early due to the Beck family. We started
fogging when fogging wasn’t cool,” he said. “Greening
is starting to hit me hard now, but it hadn’t hit me hard up to
two years ago. That worries me.”
Another concern is a dependable workforce. “We have got to have
Mexican labor or we will not get agriculture picked. Unfortunately, most
of the American people don’t understand that. I’m worried to
death that the wrong president or the wrong congressman will make us
do E-Verify, which means
we will lose our workforce. If people think orange juice is expensive
now, wait until we can’t pick the oranges. Then it gets really
“It’s hard to say whether freezes or E-Verify would
devastate me more,” Freeman said.
Instead of worrying about what could happen in the future, though,
Freeman is building the business and looking forward to some good times
ahead. “I’m really fortunate right now. I have my son
working for me. He graduated from the University of Florida and
he’s doing a wonderful job with my harvesting,” he said.
“It’s helped me greatly.”
And Freeman does take a break every now and then to pursue the
hobbies he loves. “I love the water, whether it’s fresh,
salt, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I really enjoy
offshore fishing. I’ve hardly ever been without a boat.”
P.H. Freeman & Sons headquarters is located at 640 E. Plant St.
in Winter Garden. Contact Freeman and his team at (407) 656-2433 or