Robert J. Barben (1920-2015)
Barben Fruit Company
Florida Department of Citrus School Marketing Council
Robert Jackson Barben was born on June 21, 1920 in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania to Sarah and John K. Barben. Barben grew up in Huntingdon, attending school at Huntingdon High School until he graduated in 1933. He graduated from Juniata College in 1941, then enlisted as a cadet in the Army Air Corp and was sent to the American Flight Training base in Lakeland, Florida. In 1943, he was relocated in Avon Park as a Training Instructor for B17 bombers, where he met his future wife, Jane Hart. The couple married in 1945. Jane’s father, Wilmot Hart, was a citrus and cattle rancher in Highlands County. Jane and Robert moved back to Pennsylvania in 1947 so that he could attend Dickinson School of Law. In 1949, Barben graduated from the three year program in two years. Barben bought 25% of his father and grandfather’s farm in Huntingdon to help the farm survive, but his father-in-law, Wilmot Hart urged Robert and Jane Lester to come to Florida to help with the ranch in 1950.
Barben planted his first groves in 1950, relying on his father-in-law’s expertise in the citrus industry, but he also learned a great deal from the Lake Alfred Citrus Research and Educational Center. Barben eventually took over his father-in-law’s business and created Barben Fruit Company. As of 2012, his three sons Bobby, John, and Billy were running Barben Fruit Company.
Barben was also heavily involved in several citrus and agricultural committees, often serving as an executive or the chairman. He was a member of Florida Citrus Mutual, Adams Packing Co., Growers Administrative Committee, and he served on the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association, where he worked on tax valuation. He was the Chairman of the Grapefruit Quality Committee, a member and chairman of Florida Citrus Production Manager’s Association, and was on the board of Growers Fertilizers Co. Barben worked for 19 years with the Florida Department of Citrus, the last seven serving as the Executive Director.
Barben contributed greatly to the prosperity of the Florida Citrus Industry. He acted as a lobbyist for the Greenbelt Laws, which lowered tax rates on agricultural lands. One of Barben’s proudest achievements to the Florida citrus industry while he was on the Florida Department of Citrus School Marketing Advisory Council was his efforts at delivering a nutritional school lunch program. As a leader in the FDOC, Barben struggled with a number of crises such as freezes, trade and tariff issues, and competition with imports. He also contributed to the Special Help for Agricultural Research and Educational Council, SHARE Council, at the University of Florida, where he helped raise six million dollars to aid students at UF.
He received numerous awards for his efforts in agriculture and citrus. He was the recipient of the University of Florida’s Distinguished Service Award to Agriculture. The County Agricultural Agents named him the Outstanding Agriculturist. Barben was also awarded the Agribusiness Institute’s White Hat Award for his commitment to his community and state’s agriculture.
Robert Jackson Barben of Avon Park died on December 29, 2015.