Imagine trying to conduct business without a cell phone, computer or even a plain old land line telephone. That’s how running a business was in 1914, when an enterprising Irish immigrant named Joseph Bernard Egan decided to start a company that supplied citrus fruit to the northeastern United States.
Egan had arrived in New York in the late 19th century and began working in the city’s fruit market. His family grew, and eventually he founded a company specializing in receiving and distributing fresh citrus.
“He had nine children to feed, so that gave him the incentive to go into business on his own,” said Greg Nelson, president since 1993 of DNE World Fruit Sales, the sales and marketing division of Egan’s company, now known as Bernard Egan & Co. “Early on, he started taking trips to Florida and investing in citrus groves and packinghouses in order to have a source of supply for fruit. That was before people were using the telephone to conduct business. Instead, the fruit was sold at wholesale markets and a lot of it was sold by auction. So you had to source the fruit down here in Florida and take it north by ship, primarily from Jacksonville at that time, and then later by rail,” Nelson said.
The company operated successfully for many years, and when Joseph Egan died in the 1937, his sons took over the operation. Bernard, the youngest of Joseph’s nine children, became the driving force behind the business.
Bernard Egan moved the company to Florida in the 1960s. “He was spending a lot of time going back and forth from the Northeast to Florida, so he decided to relocate and centralize the offices in Florida. There was no need to be up north. You were selling direct to the customer over the telephone by then instead of at auction markets,” Nelson said.
Bernard Egan worked in the citrus industry for 67 seasons, from age 23 until his death at age 90. “He loved the business, he said, because no two seasons were exactly alike. Things were always changing. It was always fun for him. He didn’t consider it work,” Nelson said.
Bernard Egan was inducted into the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame in 2002. Read more about his life and accomplishments here.
Today, in addition to DNE World Fruit Sales, Bernard Egan & Co. is made up of several entities including Fellsmere Farms, which produces mostly citrus with some cattle and vegetables on 18,000 acres, and a grove care-taking and management company, Blue Goose Growers, based in Fort Pierce.
DNE is widely known for its Indian River ruby red fresh grapefruit, which it markets in cooperation with the Ocean Spray cooperative. “Ocean Spray, which everybody knows is a cranberry cooperative, is also a grapefruit cooperative that focuses on the ruby red product. It’s been around for more than 40 years,” Nelson said. “We’ve been a member of Ocean Spray from the start. We’re licensed to use the Ocean Spray brand on fresh citrus. We work cooperatively with Ocean Spray in promoting fresh citrus under the Ocean Spray brand.”
The company is a successful importer and exporter, providing citrus to its customers year round. “Bernard Egan was a pioneer in developing the export market in Europe and Japan specifically,” Nelson said. “These days we probably export to 16 or 17 countries. We send fresh grapefruit to Asia and across Europe. France, Holland and Japan are major markets for our fresh grapefruit,” he said. “And we import during the summer, when Florida product is out of season. We import citrus from Australia, South Africa, Chile, Peru and Uruguay,” he said.
The company’s most pressing challenge today is citrus greening disease, a huge threat to the industry. Citrus greening is a bacterial disease spread by an insect, the Asian citrus psyllid. Learn more here.
“I’d say it’s caused the acreage to decrease by at least a third over the past 10 years. That’s significant. And the remaining trees have had a decline in yield,” Nelson said. The state’s citrus growers are hard at work trying to come up with an effective treatment to manage the disease, and they all contribute to research funding via a self-imposed tax.
“Labor supply is always an issue, but right now we’re 100 percent focused on greening efforts, because we won’t have to worry about anything else if we can’t grow fruit.” – Greg Nelson, president of DNE World Fruit Sales, the sales and marketing division of Bernard Egan & Co.
“We remain hopeful we’ll come up with an effective treatment. Long term, we’re looking for a solution in the way of a resistant root stock or a scion – a variety. I think the best solution is to develop resistance in the plant itself,” he said.
As far as other challenges, everything pales in comparison to citrus greening. “Labor supply is always an issue, but right now we’re 100 percent focused on greening efforts, because we won’t have to worry about anything else if we can’t grow fruit,” Nelson said.
Bernard Egan & Co. has always offered its support to the community’s charitable organizations as well as to industry scientific research. “We contribute to the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation, which offers grants for researchers. And Bernard Egan established a tradition of giving. He was a very charity-minded person. He was a devoted Catholic, so he believed in giving back. He founded the Samaritan Center for homeless families in Indian River County, which we continue to support today. We’re involved with a number of charitable efforts such as the United Way of Indian River and St. Lucie counties and the American Cancer Society. We’ve compiled a pretty extensive list of good causes to support in the last hundred years,” Nelson said.
Nelson continues to believe in the resilience and self-reliance of his industry and is confident it will be around in another 100 years. “We’re fighting hard to continue to have citrus in Florida because it’s an iconic crop for our state. Every grower I know is working diligently to make sure we can survive and continue the great tradition that is Florida citrus,” he said.