Jews in the Land of Disney: 'Last of the Jewish Rednecks' fills father's shoes in the orange industry
April 30, 2021
Part 2 of 2
Laurence Morrell's father passed away right after he graduated from Emory University in Atlanta. "I came back home immediately and had to take over the running of my father's business. My brother was working for Martin-Marietta, so he and my mother would show me where the groves were. Together, we took over the management of 550 acres of citrus. It was mid-summer, the weeds were crotch high, and the heat/humidity was intense that summer," Morrell recalled.
Morrell learned about the groves from the ground up. "I worked alongside with our hand-crew - hoeing trees, fertilizing them, sprouting trees, watering them, planting trees, carrying irrigation pipe, banking trees. It was back-breaking hard work. Hence the 'redneck,' as I was always sunburned from working outside, at least from the neck up," Morrell said.
During this time of working in the groves he took classes at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Fla., then he'd go to lectures at the University of Florida Extension office both in Orange and Lake counties. He attended different seminars and met a lot of people in his quest to further educate himself in running the family business.
Morrell takes great pride that after his father's passing people in the community would say, "Oh, you're Albert Morrell's son, I thought the world of your father."
Over and over he would hear this from people within the citrus industry and visiting citrus people from all over the world. "Those were big shoes to fill."
Morrell had made 13 visits to Israel, and found that people in the citrus industry knew and respected his father. "I've established many relationships as well, and today the Israeli citrus industry is totally self-sufficient, world renowned, and they're way ahead on citrus research and production methods," Morrell said proudly. "I feel nachas in knowing that a large part of the Israeli success in the citrus industry is due to my father's work in the early 1950s."
In the late 1960s, Morrell became the citrus production manager for the Dr. P. Phillips Company. At that time Phillips had 250 acres of citrus, along with around 1700 acres of undeveloped property that required management. Morrell learned about having pine tree plantations that would come in handy years later when the devastating freezes hit central Florida in the 1980s.
After 10 years working the for the Phillip's organization, Morrell went to work as an assistant manager of POLO Grove Service which was a citrus caretaking company of about 1200 acres throughout Central Florida. It now comprises The Four Corners area - Polk, Orange, Lake and Osceola counties. POLO was owned by several Jewish families, the major force behind the whole project was Morrell's uncle, Jerry Bornstein.
In 1980, after gaining more knowledge and experience, Morrell had the opportunity to purchase a citrus caretaking company that had closed down. "It was an 800-acre operation taking care of citrus groves owned by Jewish landowners both locally and out of state," he said.
In the winter of 1981, the first of four devastating freezes hit Central Florida. "Everything changed! It was a new ballgame and no one knew the rules. It was 'learn as you go.' Because of the freeze, I attended many educational conferences and meetings. I learned working for the Dr. Phillips Company the value of maintaining large acres of land zoned as agriculture. The tax break was and is amazing! As a result, I urged my customers to plant pine trees. Why? It was inexpensive to do, little to no care after planting, and it was rewarding financially, but most important, the land remained zoned as agricultural."
Morrel was offered to purchase POLO Grove service around this time, with his families citrus groves resulted in 1800 acres of land to manage, some citrus, some pine plantations. "At that time Disney was really cranking up. Land prices skyrocketed. Growers were offered thousands of dollars per acre for their land, which at that time wasn't providing any or very little income. We sold most of our land but kept around two-hundred acres."
After selling the majority of their acreage, Morrell ended purchasing a run-down two and a half-acre shade house along with 10 acres of unusable land just outside of Apopka - "The foliage capital of the world."
"I had become friendly with several Jewish foliage nursery owners including Stanley Jacobson a longtime friend. After discussing with them, looking at their foliage growing operations, I thought, 'I can do this.'"
Morrell struggled for two years. He found that growing the product wasn't difficult, however, the selling of the product wasn't his forte. After speaking with his brother, he found a buyer and got out of the foliage business.
Morrell then became an assistant research assistant with the University of Florida-Seminole County Extension Service. He took soil samples from the 15,000 acres of vegetable farms growing alongside the shores of Lake Apopka. Because the lake was so polluted and contaminated with run-off from the farms, the State decided to purchase muck-farms in an attempt to clean up the lake.
Morrell then worked for the Department of Leisure Services-Parks and Recreation as a horticulturist to manage the county-owned parks and athletic fields. During that time he managed the soccer fields for the United States Women's National Soccer team. He became an active- member of the Florida Turfgrass Growers Association, Seminole County, while learning to grow turfgrass on a professional level.
During his stay with Seminole County, Morrell served on the Soil and Water Conservation Board and was chairman for two years. He assisted in the construction/design and maintenance of the first and second Seminole County walking trails.
He was also involved in We Care and the Orange County Human Services Council.
"At 65 years old, after having back surgery, during rehab I began throwing things," Morrell said, meaning that for the next 10 years he became involved in World Masters Athletics, specifically the weight pentathlon, which consists of five events: throwing shot put, javelin, discus, hammer and weight throws. He competed throughout Florida, as well as other cities in the southeast and Puerto Rico until a serious injury forced him to quit.
He then took a job at the Interlachen Country Club golf course in Winter Park. "I began getting up at 4:45 a.m., Monday through Friday and worked at the course from 6 to 9 a.m." Morrel did this for over 10 years. During this time he began teaching a beginners Jewish genealogy class at the Jewish Academy of Orlando for around seven years.
Morrell was also involved with other Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Community Center, The Jewish Federation, Young Leadership, and UJA.
"Overall, it's been a full, well-round, non-stop experience. I've had 13 visits to Israel, I've traveled to eastern Europe to see where I've come from. I have traveled and consulted in other citrus-growing countries and have a great supportive family of three daughter and one grandson. One word sums it all up for me ... I've had a rewarding life full of nachas."
Never one to slow down, Morrell stays quite active in his backyard garden, and currently, he is overseeing grounds' maintenance at Temple Israel Cemetery.