Emily McKenna Lassiter is a woman deeply dedicated to her family, and the family citrus business.
She also has a strong affection for citrus groves. And no wonder; her childhood and family memories center around the groves, and now she makes her living in the business.
“One of the things I love is driving down the road, and seeing a freshly planted grove,” she says. “It just really gives me hope, that this industry is going somewhere. It really says that not only do I believe in this industry, but another grower believes in this industry.
“And we will continue for many years from now, growing the best tasting Florida oranges in the world.”
The “we” she’s referring to is the company her father, Marty McKenna, and her uncle, Pat McKenna, built from the ground up: McKenna Brothers, Inc.
Her father’s side of the family moved to Florida in the 1920s, and planted their roots in Lake Wales. “And they also planted their first orange grove,”she says. “My Dad was raised in it, and then, when we were born, he introduced us to it, and pretty much being in the grove is what I’ve known as I was growing up.”
She recalls a lovely childhood, raised by her father and her mother, Karen McKenna. “I was blessed with wonderful parents who supported whatever endeavor we decided to pursue. There are four of us kids. Two of us decided to take the agriculture route — myself and brother Riley McKenna — and the other two decided to excel in different industries.”
Diving right into the citrus industry was a natural transition for her. “I grew up in the orange groves, literally,” she says. “My earliest memories include riding on the hood of my Dad’s truck, on top of a blanket, drinking a sippy cup.”
And her weekends were filled with groves trips with her father. “I remember that being the highlight of our weekend, because my Dad would always let us sit on his lap and drive the truck.”
They also were nourished with citrus from an early age. “We were fed unlimited amounts of juicers, at least, that’s what we called them. My Dad would skin the top of an orange with a knife and let us drink it up like it was out of a cup. It tasted like candy.”
And although she was immersed in the business, it was her own choice to choose citrus as a career. “Agriculture was never pushed on me, I pushed myself into the industry,”she says. “By the time I was in middle school I was very involved in my Dad’s weekend grove outings.
“At that time in my life we were also heavily involved in watermelons. I was alongside my Dad for everything — the planting, the caretaking — and even the harvesting — which was of course my favorite part.
“My Dad always let me eat the heart out of the ripe watermelons. I knew at a very young age that agriculture made me happy, and there was no doubt that I would pursue a career in the field.”
She attended Abraham Baldwin Agriculture College for two years after high school, then transferred to the University of Florida. “I majored in Food and Resource Economics, and loved every agricultural econ class I took. It was clear that the major was perfect for me. I enjoyed the professors and enjoyed learning even more about the industry.”
Today, Lassiter is employed as the Fruit Accountant for McKenna Brothers, Inc. “I manage all the grower accounts and fruit production,” she says. “I keep track of when the fruit actually comes off the tree, to when it gets to the plants to get juice for orange juice.”
It is challenging work, but she is in her element.
And just in case anyone assumes she had it easier than most in snagging the job —guess again.
“Even though this is the family business, I actually had to interview for this position,” she says. “A formal interview, at that. I’m talking business attire with cover letter, resume and even letters of recommendation.”
Her father and uncle toiled for years to build the business, she says, and they aren’t interested in having anyone on board who’s not signing up to work — and work hard — for the business. Family or not.
“They take great pride in the business they created, and they believe you have to work hard for what you want.
“I definitely had to prove that I would be an asset to this company. I won them over just by saying they would not be able to interview another person with more passion about the groves they caretake and harvest than me.
“I grew up in them. I have planted them, picked them, used herbicide, pulled weeds, implemented irrigation, and, due to many freezes, had to replant again.
“I have been watching them grow over the past 29 years of my life. To someone else, production numbers would be just that, numbers. But to me, it is a celebration to see one of our growers’ net boxes and pound solids increase from the year before.
“That’s what makes this job so exciting. Of course, you have huge obstacles, such as hurricanes, and greening. But it makes the smaller victories that much more meaningful.”
And life, she says, is even more meaningful because she gets to share it with her husband, Ryan Lassiter, a lineman for Peace River Electric.
And their little family is showing clear signs of continuing the family’s citrus heritage. “We have two beautiful little girls,”she says. McKenna Faye, 3, and Annaclaire, 10 months, keep an eye on things at the office when they can, their Mom says.
And the orange hasn’t fallen far from the orange tree. “I can definitely see my daughter McKenna falling in the family footsteps. I think she’s going to be extremely interested in agriculture, and in continuing on with the family business.”
Both girls have an early start.
“They are both frequent supervisors at McKenna brothers office,” she says. The children add both the best benefits and the most challenging times.
“The best thing about my career is that I get to do it with family,” she says. “I hear so often that working with your family can be more difficult and a headache at times. That couldn’t be more false in my situation. I am so blessed to work alongside the people who mean the most to me.”
Of course, visits from a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old can sometimes be a bit hard to fit into the work program. “The most challenging would definitely be working alongside my precious little supervisors,” she says. “They run a tight ship around here. But at the same time it puts a smile on my face that they will be able to have wonderful memories like I did growing up.”