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Economy / Business

Heirs of Fl. Citrus Baron Sell Shares in Storied Company

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Congressman Darren Soto say retaliatory tariffs on American goods are hurting Florida farmers.

The heirs of a well-known figure in the Florida citrus industry are giving up control of a company that remains one of the state's largest private landowners.

Two New York-based agricultural companies are spending $137.8 million to purchase shares of Alico Inc. now held by the heirs of Ben Hill Griffin Jr.

Alico owns nearly 131,000 acres of land spread across five Florida counties — including Alachua, Collier, Lee and Polk — that are used for citrus groves, sugar cane and cattle ranching.

The University of Florida stadium is named after Griffin, who founded Alico and helped turn the company into one of the state's most prominent companies.

The Griffin clan has included prominent Florida political figures including Griffin's granddaughter Katherine Harris, who was secretary of state during the 2000 presidential election recount.

The deal announced Friday means that former state Sen. JD Alexander will be replaced as the company's chief executive. Alexander, who rose to the post of the Senate's budget committee chairman, was considered the driving force of the creation of the state's 12th university Florida Polytechnic in 2012.

Under the deal announced Friday, 734 Agriculture is partnering with Arlon Group to purchase nearly 51 per cent of outstanding voting stock owned by Atlantic Blue Group at $37 a share. 734 Agriculture is a private investment company owned and controlled by Remy W. Trafelet and George R. Brokaw. Arlon Group is a global food and agriculture investment firm founded by Continental Grain Company.

Clay Wilson, a citrus grower whom the buyers plan to appoint as chief executive, said the new owners intend to keep the company's agriculture operations intact.

"We believe that Alico provides a solid platform on which we can continue to build a thriving agribusiness operation," Wilson said in a statement. "Atlantic Blue Group's announced plan to sell its stake in the company presented a unique and compelling opportunity to make a significant investment in one of Florida's leading citrus producers and landowners."

Former State. Rep. Baxter Troutman — a board member of Atlantic Blue — told The Lakeland Ledger that he expected the new owners to operate as good agricultural stewards.

"It's kind of bittersweet, but the end of an era can be the dawn of a new era," Troutman said. "Alico and its assets are deeply entwined in Florida citrus. I don't think there's any question about their expertise in the citrus industry and agriculture as a whole."

The sale was not unexpected. Atlantic Blue Group announced earlier this year that it was exploring the sale as a result of changes in the tax code.

The Ledger reported that Atlantic Blue was formed in 2004 after the settlement of a lawsuit between Ben Hill Griffin III, the citrus baron's only son, and the families of his four daughters: Sarah Alexander, Lucy Anne Collier, Harriet Harris and Francie Milligan. The estate's value was estimated at $300 million when Griffin Jr. died in 1990.

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