Steven D. Sorrells (1950)
Steven D. Sorrells has been a giant in the Florida citrus industry for almost 50 years, growing a family business from 400 acres in 1972 to its current production of 5,500 acres. His father, Robert Sorrells, along with his older twin brothers and youngest brother, Howard Sorrells, grew up in Hiram, Georgia and operated a trucking company where a big part of their business was moving tangerines from Arcadia to Atlanta to sell at the farmers market.
In 1940, Sorrells’ father and uncles decided to move their operation to Arcadia and open their own packinghouse to pack citrus under the Sorrells Bros. Fruit Company name. It was in Arcadia, on May 3, 1950, that Steven D. Sorrells was born to Robert and Opal Sorrells, joining his older sister, Ledana. He spent his youth working in the family groves and packinghouse learning not only the citrus industry but a work ethic that would become the bedrock of his success.
Sorrells graduated from DeSoto County High School in 1968 where he was a class officer and captain of the football team, earning All-Star status. Upon graduation, Georgia Tech University accepted him into their civil engineering program but, in 1971 during his senior year, Sorrells’ father unexpectedly passed away, causing young Sorrells to return home – a decision that would ultimately leave a lasting impact on Florida’s citrus industry.
Sorrells went to work for his Uncle Howard and started from the bottom learning all aspects of the citrus industry. He began as a fruit buyer, purchasing fresh tangerines and other oranges to supply the family packinghouse, all the while learning how to manage a healthy orange grove. Before long he was managing the packinghouse. When the families had to split the businesses after his Uncle Herschel died, Steve and his mother borrowed money to buy the groves and his Uncle Howard kept the packing company. By 1990, Steve had bought out his Uncle Howard and his uncle was working for him!
Through the 1970s, the company added an additional 400 acres and started Sorrells Grove Care, Inc. to serve smaller growers with caretaking, mowing, spraying and everything an operation needs maintenance-wise. Today, they own more than 5,000 acres and move approximately 3 to 5 million boxes of fruit a year through a fleet of 17 trucks and some 200 trailers within a 50-mile radius of Arcadia. His business holdings also include a caretaking company, a trucking business, a harvesting business, and a cattle operation with 2,000 cows.
In 1979, Steve married his wife, Betsy, and together they have three children, Adam, Justin, and Kristie, with Justin and his sister’s son, Wes, joining him in the citrus operations.
He was the first grower to navigate the federal government’s morass of rules surrounding visas for labor workers, as getting labor to harvest the crop became increasingly harder to do. Early on, he recognized the need to modernize his labor force by utilizing the U.S. Department of Labor’s H-2A visa program – which allows growers to bring in foreign workers under contract for a set period of time. This was revolutionary at the time as the vast majority of growers were using traditional I-9 workers. During peak season from October to June, participation in the federal guest worker program allowed him to bring in an additional 450 harvesters from Mexico. Because of Sorrells trailblazing use of the H-2A program – and his willingness to share what he learned by trial and error – it is now the industry standard, with more than 90 percent of the grove acreage in Florida harvested by H-2A workers. He has been a bottomless source of H-2A information and tireless advocate on improving the program for the benefit of growers and labor alike. Awarded the Best Labor Camp in Florida in 2010 by the US Department of Labor, his H-2A workers are consistent and loyal year after year, and that is a tribute to the way he runs his companies.
He has served on numerous industry boards and organizations and was the first person to serve two separate terms as president of Florida Citrus Mutual because the board asked him to serve as president for the second time to help with the transition of a new CEO. During his 28-year tenure as a board member, Sorrells served as President, Vice President, Secretary, and on the Executive Committee, helping lead the industry through a variety of issues, including the tumultuous tariff and anti-dumping battles with Brazil. During that time, he chaired the Citrus Tariff Oversight Committee, which directed the industry strategy on how to preserve the tariff on imported OJ while also making sure that exporters were playing by the rules. The period was a huge transition era for the industry and his leadership was a key component to its success.
An innovator in production, Sorrells served as chairman of the original Florida Citrus Production Research Advisory Council (FCPRAC) and has embraced new technology and practices in rehabilitating groves that could soon become industry standards. He has been able to rehabilitate groves by utilizing new technology allowing easier uptake of nutritional products and has introduced ultra-high-density plantings outside of all industry norms, requiring the introduction of smaller equipment and adjusted production methods.
A 20-year member of the board for Orange Growers Marketing Association (OGMA), he has helped maintain their position as Florida’s Natural Growers’ largest fruit supplier and is one of the most highly respected advocates of the industry today. He is also a former board member for Florida Growers Fertilizer, member of the Peace River Valley CGA and is a lifelong member of the First Baptist Church of Arcadia, serving as treasurer since 1987.
Known not only for his innovation and advocacy for the citrus industry, but for his work ethic, integrity, innovation and faith, we are honored to welcome one of the industry’s premier leaders – Steven D. Sorrells – to the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame!