Family Taught Barben Much About the Citrus Business
Lakeland Ledger – January 28, 2012
AVON PARK | When Pennsylvania native Robert Barben married the former Jane Hartt in July 1945, he could barely distinguish an orange from a tangerine.
But Barben married into the prominent Highlands County citrus family headed by the late Earl Hartt, who prevailed upon his son-in-law to join the family firm, which he did in 1950. The two became so close, Barben, 91, still calls Earl Hartt “dad.”
Raised in rural town of Huntingdon, Pa., where his father and grandfather ran a farm equipment business, Barben knew something about agriculture. But he had a lot to learn about growing citrus, which started with Earl Hartt, who served on the first Florida Citrus Commission in the late 1930s.
“I couldn’t have had a better teacher. He was a real student — everything he did, he researched,” Barben said. “Dad was very scientific, and he always had consultants.”
A lawyer, Barben dived into learning about citrus with similar fervor. He often made the long journey from Avon Park to Lake Alfred to attend classes or seminars at the Citrus Research and Education Center, Barben said.
As a result, all seven Barben children graduated from the University of Florida, including sons John, Bobby and Billy, who run the family business, Barben Fruit Co., and its subsidiaries. From the couple hundred grove acres he inherited from Hartt, the Barbens built the business to about 2,000 acres today.
Barben became active on the UF Foundation, the university’s fund-raising arm, and the SHARE Council (Special Help for Agricultural Research and Education), which raises money for UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, which runs the Lake Alfred center and its agricultural curriculum. He served on the boards of both bodies, including as chairman.
Barben said he would most like to be remembered for his efforts at supporting education and research.
“Without research, this industry wouldn’t be what it is today,” he said. “We owe a great debt to all the scientists and researchers at the Lake Alfred center, who continue to do good work.”