Marvin Kahn (1933-1985)
Marvin Kahn’s parents, Mike and Sadie Kahn, immigrated to the United States from Lithuania and were one of the earliest settlers in Sebring, where they opened a dry goods store downtown on the ground floor of the Nan-ces-o-wee Hotel. Always wanting to farm, he eventually bought a 20-acre citrus grove southeast of Sebring and built their home there, and that’s where Marvin David Kahn was born on April 8, 1933 surrounded by citrus. He grew up in the groves with his sister and two brothers, but his father died unexpectedly at age 52, when Marvin was just ten, so his sister quit school to work the store and his mother took over management of the groves. At school, Marvin developed an interest in both citrus and cattle, joining the 4-H Club to raise a calf due to county agents V.T. Oxer and Bert Harris, who mentored him after his father died. He was in the FFA, served on the Student Council, and was Class Officer each year in high school, where he was named Most Popular and became known for his campaign speeches – an early sign of things to come.
He went on to the University of Florida and majored in Animal Science with a minor in Citrus, graduating in 1956. While there, he met and married Elsa Babette Kessler, from Leesburg, and they have two children, Steven and Leah.
Upon graduation, Marvin developed a cattle ranch in Hardee County at Sweetwater, where he and Elsa lived for two years before moving to Sebring to take over the role of managing the day-to-day operations of the family groves. He formed Kahn Groves, Inc. as the family caretaking entity managing approximately 400 acres of groves and, in 1969, added Kahn Grove Service to care for neighboring properties in both Highlands and Hardee counties. By the end of the ‘70s, the business managed a little over 2,000 acres and had expanded into southern Polk County.
During this time, Marvin served on the Florida Citrus Commission from 1971 to 1979 when the industry experienced a period of rapid growth and over-production. This led to the need to improve marketing and ushered in the era of Anita Bryant, with Marvin a huge proponent of Florida identification.
He served on eight committees from 1974 to 2011 and his service led to changes in everything from the modification of the standards for grapefruit to developing a strategic plan for marketing citrus and expanding the use of citrus in school lunches. Marvin attended Citrus Commission meetings regularly even after he was no longer a commissioner, providing grower input on commission business and activities, with the best interests of the industry always the foundation of his comments. As part of Citrus Growers’ Associates, he, Jim Griffiths and Frank Bouis both also in the Hall of Fame – spearheaded a determined group that made sure the grower was well represented.
In the ‘80s, Marvin partnered with several entities to plant almost 1,000 acres of citrus at the Sweetwater ranch in Hardee County and was on the cutting edge of grove development using state of the art practices of microjet irrigation, drainage tiles, bedded rows and a permanent fertigation system. He was an early proponent of water conservation and was part of a working group with the Southwest Florida Water Management District which ultimately developed the first Water Use Caution Area in Highlands County.
Eventually, Marvin purchased Kahn Grove Service from the family and he continued to expand through the ‘90s, caring for and harvesting more than 5,500 acres through both personal acquisitions of groves, other care companies, and caring for groves developed by other management companies. A “grower’s grower,” he spent time in the groves deciding what the groves needed and had a philosophy of “personalized service” for his customers.
He developed the company of about 25 employees on the principles of “family.” Employees weren’t just workers, they were part of a family and team with ownership rights and obligations. He rewarded excellence and communicated with workers regularly, offering employees stock purchases within the company, so he rarely had an employee leave.
Of incredible importance, Marvin helped found the Highlands County Citrus Grower Association in 1990 and was their first President at a time when local and state governmental issues affecting the citrus industry were hindering the ability of growers to do business.
A community-minded man, especially in preserving local history in his city, county and state, Marvin helped form the Florida Cracker Trail Association in 1987 to recreate a part of Florida’s history commemorating the tradition of Florida cattlemen (Florida Crackers) in the 1800s who gathered their cattle on the open range in South Central Florida and drove them from Fort Pierce to Bradenton for shipment to Cuba. To memorialize the trail, an annual Florida Cracker Trail ride was launched, starting in Bradenton and ending in Fort Pierce.
Marvin also invested a lot of time hosting tours of Highlands County School children at his groves to try and instill an appreciation among the youth of what the citrus business and industry was and what it contributed to the local economy, in hopes not only to educate them about agriculture but to create interest in pursuing a career in the industry.
A member of numerous organizations, Marvin supported them with both his time and his resources, which is evident by the wide array of awards and recognitions, including Runner-up for the Jaycees Outstanding Farmer in Florida and the Florida Bankers Award for Soil Conservation.
He was a member of the Highlands County and Florida Farm Bureau for over 65 years, serving both on the board and as President; served as President of the Highlands County Cattleman’s Association; First President of the Florida Beef Council; and was deeply committed to both FFA and 4-H, where he was a Founding Member of the Highlands County 4-H Club Foundation.
Marvin continued to grow his business and, in 2010, created Kahn Citrus Management, LLC, as the maintenance and harvesting entity, partnering with Travis Murphy to continue the legacy of his company and employees. Although Hurricane Irma destroyed his offices in 2017, he continues to operate his business in Sebring not far from the park he built in honor of his mother, Sadie, and her contributions to the community – a trait she obviously instilled deeply in him.
Marvin D. Kahn was involved in everything related to growing, harvesting and selling citrus and did his utmost to do not what was in his best interests, but what he felt was best to nurture, protect and promote Florida’s citrus industry for the future.