The desire to rebuild a family business turns one committed producer into an agricultural entrepreneur.
By Sabra Morris | Photos By Michael C. Potthast
Ask Dale McClellan about his work and watch his face change. An authentic smile appears, along with a twinkle in his eye.
It’s a sign that Dale, owner of M&B Dairy and M&B Products, is about to tell you a story—about his family history in dairy farming, perhaps, or the newest product his processing plant is planning to roll out or the latest community event with which he’s involved. All these elements, and more, are what have made Dale the successful business owner he is today. And his willingness to share his experience and expertise, for whatever benefit it might bring to others, is a large part of the reason he was named the 2012 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year.
Another measure of his success is via hard numbers. First, there’s the 65,000-square-foot M&B Products processing plant in Tampa, Fla., which employs 140 people and packages and processes more than 1 million combined units of milk and juice every day.
Then there’s the dairy in Lecanto, about 90 miles north of Tampa. Overseen by Dale’s eldest son, Leon, the farm encompasses 1,172 acres, including 250 acres used for growing corn and oats, and another 850 leased from the Florida Forest Service that remain uncleared and unplanted. The crops grown on the farm help feed the operation’s 690 dairy cows, which produce 6,000 gallons of milk on a typical day.
Reinventing the Business
Times weren’t always this good, though. The current M&B plant site in Tampa was once home to Sunnybrook Dairy, a farm and processing plant owned by Dale’s grandfather beginning in 1959. Growing up, Dale worked alongside his granddad, aunts and uncles on the farm and at the plant.
Yet, the plant fell on hard times and was forced to shut down in 1979. With a love for the work already in his blood, Dale continued to milk a few of the family cows and send milk to the local co-op. But with no business, the plant laid dormant for years. “It was like driving by the graveyard,” says Dale.
Motivated to get things moving again, Dale convinced his grandfather to reopen the old plant with him in 1987, under the name M&B Products. This time, he focused on packaging juice for school lunch programs. Why juice? “I saw a need in the marketplace,” Dale says matter-of-factly. Why schools? “Schools are something a lot of dairies tend to overlook, so I said, you know, ‘I want to make this my core business.’”
Expansion with Care
Even though he saw success with juice, Dale continued to process and package milk on a small scale as well. “I wanted my granddad to see milk going through that plant again before he died,” he says. And so it was. Dale’s grandfather passed away in 2001.
Eager to expand milk production, Dale opened a brand-new dairy in nearby Lecanto in 2003. “I wanted to build a dairy that was manageable, that was employee-friendly and cow-friendly,” Dale explains. “I also wanted to get with an engineer that knew how to make it environmentally friendly.”
True to Dale’s commitment, efficiency measures abound at the new M&B Dairy. The cow barn, which sits on a 2% slope, is routinely flushed with water, and the liquids and manure solids are separated in an underground concrete basin.
The liquids are used to irrigate the fields, while the solids go to a 2-acre compost site where the composted material becomes padding for the cow beds. Right now, the compost system allows for 100% use of all manure solids, so no manure waste is shipped offsite. In addition, milking machines feature automatic takeoffs to guard against over-milking.
Employee labor is minimized too, thanks to the flushing system, which keeps workers from having to shovel manure. Stainless steel water troughs can be dumped easily for cleaning, and feed handling can be done with tractors instead of by hand.
As it is with any business endeavor, opening the new M&B Dairy came with challenges. At first, residents and business owners in Citrus County, where the dairy resides, were wary of such a large operation being built in their backyard. Instead of reacting defensively, Dale held community meetings to discuss his plans for the site, and invited his family and his engineer to come and speak.
His efforts paid off, and now the McClellan family enjoys a great relationship with their neighbors in the county. Leon and Dale sit on the board for several local business and charitable organizations, while the entire family pitches in to help throw benefits and events benefiting those organizations.
Additionally, in an effort to promote ag tourism in Citrus County, Dale and Leon open the dairy for tours. They also work with the commissioner of agriculture to promote “buy local” efforts in Florida, while Dale, along with three other producers, has started a co-op with other area dairy farmers in an effort to help market local milk.
The Honor Society
When asked why Dale was named Farmer of the Year, Charles E. Snipes, Ph.D., retired weed scientist and president and research scientist with Stoneville R&D, Inc., who was a senior judge for the 2012 award says, “It gets down to basic innovation and initiative, his eagerness to work with the public and to resuscitate a dairy with new-age thinking.”
But it has to do with good community relations too. “Dale is willing to embrace the challenges ahead and improve the image of his farm,” Snipes says.
“He’s willing to work with local leaders and to go the extra mile to make sure he’s a good neighbor. He has done a very good job of keeping people informed about what he’s doing.”
For Dale’s family, it’s a little more personal. All three of his and wife Mary’s sons work at M&B, each having found a niche of his own. Leon oversees the farm in Lecanto; middle son, Bryan, runs the in-state distribution side of things; and youngest son, Daniel, is learning how to run all aspects of the plant.
Other members of the family play a role too, including daughters-in-law Andrea, who runs office operations at the plant and Jessie, who provides event support and runs the farmstead and family life in Lecanto. Mary also provides important behind-the-scenes event support and childcare for the grandchildren.
Dale, they say, has built something they’re all lucky to be a part of. “A lot of people can’t work for their dad,” says Leon. But, he continues, “Working for him is an honor.
“Dairy has been in my heart since I was born. And you know, you can make any boss happy and it’s a good feeling, but when it’s your dad, it’s even better.”