Prosser, a Plant City native and a citrus industry innovator, will be honored at the November luncheon.
In a Florida Citrus Hall of Fame news release, Brenda Eubanks Burnette, Hall of Fame Executive Director, praised Plant City businessman and citrus industry entrepreneur Lew James Prosser, Jr., for his leadership in the citrus industry over many years and announced his selection for induction into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame.
Prosser was selected along with three other candidates from a slate of 21 nominees for the prestigious award, which will be presented at the 58th Citrus Celebration Luncheon scheduled for Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, at Florida Southern College. The annual luncheon originally set for March 2021 was moved as a precaution due to the pandemic.
Along with Prosser, the inductees are former Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, former Extension Agent and professor John Jackson and Steve Sorrells, a citrus production innovator and former Chairman of the Florida Citrus Production Research Advisory Council.
One of seven sons born to Lew James and Anna Letha Prosser, Lew James Prosser, Jr., was born in Prosser Hollow, Cambria County, near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on July 9,1899. His father was a successful bituminous coal operator. The family vacationed in Miami several times and moved there permanently around 1906. Lew, Jr. attended public schools, graduating from Miami High School in 1916 and completing his formal education at Pan American College of Commerce in Miami.
While still a very young man, Lew, Jr., moved to Plant City. It was the largest inland shipping point in the state with the passage of 50 to 60 trains a day. He worked for the Seaboard Air Line Railroad and gained valuable experience in freight shipping and the express business, leading to some of his most important innovations. He began his career in the citrus industry in 1921 working for Robert Wade Burch, a pioneer citrus and produce shipper. After the death of Mr. Burch in 1928, Prosser assumed sole ownership of the R.W. Burch Company. By 1930 he expanded the operations to five citrus packing plants and had become the third-largest independent shipper of citrus fruit in Florida.
With the collapse of Florida’s economy in the late 1920s, farmers had few markets for their products. Their survival depended on the extension of farm credit and making possible continued production and enabling their suppliers to also stay in business. A first which benefitted growers in the area was the formation of the Plant City Production Credit Company, administered by Prosser’s R.W. Burch Company and sponsored by a forerunner to the United States Farm Credit Administration. It was the first farm production credit association in this part of Florida.
Prosser was an inventor and an aggressive innovator. His list of accomplishments is long and includes the formation of the Florida Mixed Car Company, specializing in marketing mixed carlot shipments of citrus and produce on one rail car solely dedicated to the shipment of produce. Later, when the railroads were unwilling to provide refrigerated carlot express services, Prosser underwrote the expense of a proceeding before the Interstate Commerce Commission in Washington. The case lasted three years and eventually, in the mid-1930s, resulted in a ruling by the ICC that the express companies be required by law to provide full refrigerated car service by express at reduced rates. This provided significant relief for produce growers and shippers.
The increased volume of shipments led to the centralization of farm markets and the new Florida State Farmers Market (1939) provided an efficient marketing means leading to increased production benefitting produce growers and shippers. Areas around the Farmers Market were incubators for new business. In 1944, Lew Prosser organized the first and only citrus canning plant in Plant City, the Citrus Products Company, providing a new market for the citrus producers. He also used the byproducts processing them in the adjacent cattle feed division and the citrus molasses division.
Always wanting to know about citrus production in other countries, Prosser made many trips throughout the world in this quest. He and Dr. Arthur F. Camp, later of the Citrus Experimental Station (CAS) in Lake Alfred, went to Brazil to explore that nation’s potential long before its rise as a main competitor in the citrus industry. He later traveled to Spain to study how that country was handling the infestations of the Mediterranean fruit fly.
Prosser’s extensive knowledge about citrus resulted in several revolutionary changes in processing and marketing crops. He made a valuable contribution to the industry with the development of two patents which became uniformly applied throughout the state.
One of these was the tri-sodium phosphate bath. Previously, it had been necessary to wrap each orange and grapefruit separately in specially treated paper to deter decay in transit and merchandising. This was eliminated by the new bath process which significantly slowed decay, reduced the cost of packing and led to the use of alternative types of containers.
The second innovation pioneered by Prosser’s company was an improvement patent. The dyeing of oranges of varieties characteristically yellow in appearance gave them a darker orange color, enhancing the eye appeal of the fruit, making it more competitive with higher colored varieties and increasing their marketability. The improvement patent became widely used within the industry.
By the time of his death in 1996 at age 97, Lew Prosser, Plant City’s quiet entrepreneur, found success in the citrus industry and in several businesses. His name was known and associated with citrus not only in his hometown, but far beyond for more than 75 years. He was a pioneer, shipper, producer, processor, researcher and promoter of Florida’s citrus industry.
Gil Gott is the director of the Plant City Photo Archives and History Center.