M&B Products Inc.
While many challenges face the Florida farmer -- weather, development, and the economy, to name a few -- one of the most daunting is the average Floridian’s perception of agriculture. For many people, the source of their food is not the farm, but rather the grocery store. Educating them about the importance of rural farm lands and the true nature of agricultural operations is a difficult task. Few know this better than Dale McClellan.
A dairyman all his life, McClellan continually sought new ways to expand the family’s Tampa-based business, M&B Products. One of the concepts was to create a modern, environmentally sound dairy farm. After years of costly research, he did just that in Lecanto, a small community outside Homosassa Springs. While he took into account every aspect of proper stewardship when designing the facility, he did not anticipate the public’s response.
The farm was zoned for agriculture and is flanked on three sides by a large buffer of state lands. The neighbors were fearful with misconceptions about intensive animal operations and objected to the idea of a local dairy. They had a number of concerns: depletion of their water supply, the cows’ waste contaminating groundwater, and odors that would diminish their quality of life and property values. In the face of verbal attacks and negative news coverage, M&B worked to educate the surrounding community on the advanced, humane design of its Lecanto operation.
“One of the things we did that I think was beneficial -- but it certainly increased the cost of us building a new dairy -- was to offer to have a couple of public meetings,” McClellan said. “Even if they were angry, people could show up and ask any question they wanted, and we fielded those questions. We are in an environment now where people don’t understand agriculture. We’re good people that just want to earn a living and we’re not here to harm the environment.”
Education of the community allowed the public to see how much research went into planning the operation.
In 1999, McClellan hired an engineer experienced in dairy design. They traveled extensively across the Southeast visiting existing dairies and incorporating the best elements of each into their own plans. They consulted with the University of Florida Animal Science Department, the American Dairy Science Association, the American Society of Agricultural Engineers and the American Association of Bovine Practitioners for the latest innovations in designing the warm-weather dairy farm. M&B Products collaborated with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to address specific environmental issues concerning dairies.
McClellan knew it would be a costly and time-intensive undertaking, but he saw it as an opportunity. Starting from the ground up and incorporating progressive environmental procedures, he would build an economically viable dairy that would exceed future regulatory requirements -- one that would enable a fifth generation of the family to carry on the tradition of dairy farming.
After a year and a half of educating the public, McClellan’s vision of a modern dairy came to fruition, and in the summer of 2003 milking began.
Lecanto Dairy is integrated into its environment. Open-air barns are positioned to maximize the flow of the area’s breezes for the cows’ comfort. Rubber mats in stalls also contribute to their comfort. The farm has seen increased milk production, improved breeding numbers, and a longer lifespan for the cows.
Recycling plays a big role at the dairy. The free-stall barns are flushed three times a day with reuse water. The water washes waste into a collection ditch at the lower end of the barn which, in turn, carries it to a concrete-lined holding tank. From the tank it is sprayed onto a hay field for irrigation. Here the grass absorbs the nutrients from the waste water, preventing them from seeping into the groundwater and minimizing the impact on the surrounding water table. The hay is then fed to the cows. By recycling the waste water, Lecanto draws only a fraction of its allotted amount of fresh water, while maintaining a nutrient-balanced system.
Today, the Lecanto Diary exemplifies M&B’s commitment to excellence and serves as a state-of-the-art model for environmentally friendly dairy farms in Florida.
“We want to have a dairy farm that is a show place,” McClellan said. “We want to have a dairy farm that agriculture is proud of. I feel like that if agriculture is going to continue in Florida, we’ve got to learn to do better, and we have to be very proactive in our industry.”
The same proactive approach that McClellan used to develop the Lecanto dairy was applied to the family’s processing plant in Tampa. M&B’s original milk plant that had been in operation since the 1950s was squeezed out of the production market in 1979 by large companies. For years after it was forced to shut down, McClellan and his grandfather harbored a desire to reopen the plant. To do this, he knew the company would have to reinvent itself.
Following the advice of his mentors, he found his niche market in expanded product lines. New packaging includes innovative mini-sip pouches, which not only allow 40 percent more inventory per truckload, they reduce trash by about 2.3 million pounds a year. They can be flattened to a fraction of that of a can or bottle and can be recycled. They are also a good source of fuel for trash-burning power plants. M&B has also expanded beyond milk to include nearly 140 different products including shakes, fruit juices, and frozen juice bars. Since reopening, the plant continues to evolve by introducing new products and different ways to be profitable.
Having the plant operating has been an emotional issue for McClellan. It meant continuing a very important family tradition.
His family roots run deep in the dairy business. Both of his grandfathers owned dairies in Florida. Dale and his father were raised on the family farm. Dale’s mother was the bookkeeper for her family’s dairy. He met his wife, Mary, at his grandfather’s Sunny Brook Dairy Milk Plant. A short time after their marriage, Dale and Mary started M&B Products as a continuation of Sunny Brook. The dairy has been in operation since the early 1950s and is still a family-run business that now spans four generations. Dale’s grandmother helps with approving and writing checks; Dale’s cousin, Rocky Lovelace, is part owner and M&B’s sales manager; and Dale and Mary’s sons work at the Lecanto dairy. A fifth-generation is on its way to help carry on the family’s dairy tradition.
“I think the future looks good for our family,” McClellan said. “Everybody needs to eat, and I think that there’s going to be a demand for agriculture products, including dairy. Dairies like ours will be a premium, and we can be proud of what we’ve built.”