Howard E. Sorrells (1926)
- Sorrells Brothers Packing Company
- Peace River Valley Citrus Growers Association
- Triple Crown Program
- Mechanical Harvesting Research Program
Howard E. Sorrells was born on September 17, 1926 to Addibelle Huff and William E. Sorrells in Hiram, Georgia, where the family raised corn, cotton, mules and cows. The youngest of nine siblings, Sorrells attended Hiram High School and graduated in 1943. His twin brothers, Herschel and Hubert, left home at 15, when Howard was five, and moved to Arcadia, Florida, where they loaded a truck with citrus and brought it back to the Georgia State Farmers market to sell. This led to Sorrells’ first job – driving a truck and hauling citrus with his brothers when he was 16 years old. The twins and brother, Robert, settled in Arcadia in 1938 and founded Sorrells Brothers Packing Company in Arcadia in 1941, with Howard joining them after college. Together they developed and planted many acres of citrus groves in DeSoto County, eventually becoming one of the most reputable and premier caretaking services, intermediate handlers, and harvesters of citrus in Florida.
Sorrells was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1945. In 1947 he was accepted into the University of Florida under the GI Bill – becoming the first of his family to ever graduate from college when he received his B.A. in Business Administration in 1951. That year that would stand out as one of the high points and low points of Sorrells’ life, when he lost his father in May of 1951,and his brother, Hubert, in November, but married Celia Blount, whom he had met when he moved to Arcadia after college. Together they raised four children: Marie, Jane, Susan and Julie, and have five grandchildren. After Sorrells and Celia were married, they moved to the Atlanta office of Sorrells & Chapman where he worked in the wholesale market and ran the office there for approximately six years, buying and selling citrus fruit and selling watermelons in the off-season. Friend and former writer for the DeSoto County Times, Howard Melton, noted that “a record of one and a half million dollars in annual sales was established in their market there, while a $2 million annual volume of business was done in Arcadia.”
In 1957, Sorrells moved back to Arcadia and worked with Robert to operate the family business, which at that time had been one of the top 10 volume packinghouses in Florida. Sorrells became involved in the various citrus organizations, believing that involvement was a duty and that grower organizations were imperative for growers to stay informed on all the issues and regulations that affected the citrus industry.
Sorrells was a member of Florida Citrus Mutual from 1964 to 1997, serving as a member of the board in 1971 and 1972 after his brother Robert passed away. In addition, he was a member of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association from 1962 to 1978 and a member of the Peace River Valley Citrus Growers Association (PRVCGA) from their inception in 1993 to 2008.
After the 1981 freeze, Sorrells closed the packinghouse and concentrated on his groves and the picking and hauling business, making the shift to focus on buying citrus from approximately 100 growers in DeSoto and Hardee counties and selling it to six or seven processing plants in a 75-mile radius. At the peak of the season, he employed approximately 300 to 400 workers. From 1991 to1998, Howard was appointed and reappointed to the Florida Citrus Commission by Governor Lawton Chiles, whom he had been acquainted with prior to Chiles’ election as governor. Sorrells served as vice-chairman from 1993 to1994, and then Chairman from 1994 to1998. In addition, he served as chair of the Administrative and Budget, Long-Range Planning, and Scientific Research committees during his tenure on the Commission.
Under Sorrells’s leadership, he helped redirect the citrus industry from a production orientation to a marketing focus to concentrate on more effective ways to sell citrus. To quote Sorrells, “We have learned how to grow citrus – now we have to find more effective ways to sell it.” Therefore, the Commission began to center their efforts on increasing consumers’ awareness of the health and nutritional benefits of Florida citrus products.
One such program was the Triple Crown program, which partnered the Florida Department of Citrus (FDOC) with the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the March of Dimes. These groups joined with the FDOC to promote the critical role of diet in disease prevention and the specific role of citrus in lowering the risk of certain cancers and birth defects. This campaign resulted in an increased awareness of the role of Florida citrus in the prevention of cancer and heart disease and helped to position Florida citrus products as an important part of a “wellness” lifestyle, leading to record citrus sales. Former FDOC Executive Director, Dan Santangelo, noted that under Sorrells’s leadership, Florida orange juice per capita consumption increased from five gallons to six gallons, which increased retail sales by $1.5 billion dollars per year.
Another problem facing growers during Sorrells’s tenure were labor costs, which at that point were forecast to rise dramatically due to a potential problem of not having enough workers to harvest the crops. Therefore, Sorrells pursued a course of action to establish a mechanical harvesting research program which would help growers improve harvesting efficiency and reduce costs. That increased budget in research to benefit grower problems was the forerunner of things to come, with grower-directed research playing an ever more important role in the industry today as we struggle to combat a multitude of production issues.
Sorrells’s commitment to agriculture in the state of Florida is not limited to citrus. Sorrells actively engaged in growing watermelons, serving on both the National Watermelon Association and the Florida Watermelon Association. In 2008, he was recognized with the National Watermelon Association Lifetime Achievement Award.
Sorrells has also been active in giving back to his community of Arcadia, particularly in the area of education. Sorrells served on the Desoto County School Board from 1968 to 1980, serving as Chairman of the Board from 1971 to 1973. He was a member of the Arcadia Rotary Club, and is currently a charter member of the Desoto County Education Foundation, Inc., an independent, not-for-profit organization whose corporate purpose is to focus the private sector upon enhancing the quality of and support for public education in Desoto County.
Described as a “grass roots grower,” Sorrells was known as a knowledgeable, low-key individual who was committed to the industry to the point that he could be an immovable object if necessary. Without question, Sorrells’s strong, quiet leadership and commitment to Florida citrus served as a guiding force during the both the high points and the low points of the industry.