We have branched out from the traditional supplier model, and while we continue to do what works, we refuse to put our heads in the sand and assume that we don’t need to expand, grow, and change.”
When I first approached Lone Star Citrus Growers’ Director of Marketing, April Flowers, earlier this year about telling the company’s story, these were the first words she said to me. And as I’ve come to learn more about both the origin of Lone Star Citrus and its path forward, it’s clear that this never-complacent, always-innovative attitude is what makes the Texas citrus company so compelling against the backdrop of an industry that too often gets caught up in the it’s-always-been-done-this-way mindset.
“The consumer base in the U.S. is ever-changing and evolving,” April says when I ask her to explore why Lone Star Citrus is so committed to staying nimble in its progression as a company. “In the last five years alone, our culture has seen major changes to the way consumers shop for groceries. When we look at the supply chain beginning with the end, that absolutely impacts the way we do business. We need to be in touch with the people who are making the actual purchase at the consumer level so that we can drive traffic toward our product in a meaningful and helpful way. As long as consumers and technology are evolving, we as the supplier must be willing to change as well.”
Fortunately, change is something that has always been a part of the company’s playbook. Lone Star Citrus was founded by citrus industry veteran Jud Flowers in the spring of 2007 after the company he was then General Manager of had an unexpected shakeup of ownership. Jud had to think fast and follow his heart. And when Jud knew he had his former colleague Trent Bishop and son T.J. Flowers on board, the trio set out to put their combined 100 years of experience toward developing a vertically integrated citrus operation that went beyond the norm.
“Over these last 11 years, we have slowly and steadily grown that vision of our business to be the viable and dependable supply source that it is today,” Trent, VP of Sales, reflects, telling me the story of how the company went from a brainchild of Jud’s to a full-fledged rebel—bucking business as usual and standing out from its produce peers. “We pride ourselves on the fact that we go above and beyond to add value to every partnership we are fortunate enough to be a part of. Whether it is our first-class grower base or our ever-growing customer base, it is our intent to be a valuable and proactive partner in increasing the consumption of fresh Texas citrus.”
And during those 11 years, Lone Star Citrus has become more than just “dependable,” though it is that, too. T.J., Vice President of Operations, tells me that the company has been on a constant growth path, doubling in size in just over a decade. More recently, Lone Star Citrus has gone even further to differentiate itself from the pack, building its own juice plant, implementing its first branding and marketing program with Winter Sweetz™, and expanding globally through an export network.
“...we refuse to put our heads in the sand and assume that we don’t need to expand, grow, and change.”
- April Flowers, director of marketing, Lone star citrus growers
“Every year brings new projects, technologies, and programs as we’ve consistently worked toward becoming a solutions-based supplier. Every detail, from the layout of our pack lines to equipment and software upgrades, revolves around improving quality and efficiency,” T.J. explains.
And a major way Lone Star Citrus enhanced quality and value for its retail partners was branding its now popular Winter Sweetz Texas red grapefruit program, contrasting it starkly against the state’s other offerings.
“When we saw the fact that grapefruit consumption was declining, we had to have an honest conversation with ourselves,” April acknowledges. “As we explored branding, the research was undeniable, and we had every reason to move forward. Our goal with Winter Sweetz is simple: reintroduce grapefruit to new generations of consumers by clarifying the category. Since branding, our marketing program has grown exponentially every year as we’ve worked to create new and interesting content that drives demand. Now, we’re talking directly to consumers and capturing our own consumer-generated data, which we’re then using to inform our sales and marketing efforts.”
Another, perhaps more obvious, part of the company’s growth efforts has been expanding acreage; opening up opportunities for new technologies; and other methods to further increase production, improve efficiency, and meet new challenges of disease and pests. As President and CEO, Jud tells me that Lone Star Citrus’ strategic high-density plantings, raised beds, reflective ground covers, and improved drip irrigation are just a few of the modern innovations the company’s farms are incorporating to gain a competitive advantage both against Texas citrus and markets beyond.
“Texas is fast becoming the nation’s primary grapefruit production area,” Jud explains. “For reasons that are not totally understood as of yet, we have not been affected by various diseases that have devastated other production areas, and as such, we are becoming an attractive alternative for both Europe and Asia as the primary supplier for fresh and processed citrus products. We are actively engaged in opening new markets as outlets for our new and expanding acreage.”
“Texas is fast becoming the nation’s primary grapefruit production area.”
- Jud Flowers, President and ceo, Lone star citrus growers
To that end, in July 2018, Trent went to South Korea on a trade trip intent on introducing Texas grapefruit to the market. The reception and level of excitement was incredible, he said, and with the aid of the Texas Department of Agriculture and the United States Department of Agriculture, negotiations to bring Texas grapefruit to Korea are already underway.
“Lone Star Citrus Growers does not let geographic borders or bodies of water limit our exposure to world markets,” Trent tells me of the global expansion strategy. “Today, it is easier than ever to make inroads in markets that are either untapped or relatively unaware of the supply of Texas citrus. Our global mindset is that we cannot rest until we have introduced all potential markets to Texas citrus, regardless of location.”
That’s not to say the Lone Star team is abandoning its Texas roots, though. When I ask April how the company keeps hold of its homegrown Texan identity as it continues to look outwards for expansion, she assures me—Lone Star Citrus is Texas, through and through.
“The fact is, our families are tied to this land and this community. We don’t just conduct business here; we live, work, serve, and are raising families in the Rio Grande Valley,” she explains. “Our CEO is actually in the orchards on a daily basis, and our two VPs are at the sales desk and in the plant every single day. It’s very much a family affair, and that’s how we plan to keep working. Because of that, I don’t think there will ever be a day when one of our partners is out of touch with the logistical realities of our operations, no matter how much we grow.”
With roots deep in the Texas soil that makes citrus so sweet, and branches stretching out to the great unknown, who knows where Lone Star Citrus’ fruit will find itself next.