Back in the 1960's, my grandparents “Meam & Pop” would travel to Florida from New Jersey to escape cold winters. They would rent a small trailer in Casselberry, near Orlando and the highlight of our year was getting to visit them for Christmas. My mother and father, Al and Jeanne Schorner would load us boys, Jim, Ken and Jeff into the car and we'd drive seemingly forever to the Sunshine State. If Dad couldn't get off work to drive us, they would let my older brother Ken and I ride the train all the way from Pittsburgh to Orlando. I can still remember the conductor shouting “Orange juice, orange juice, fresh Florida orange juice” as we crossed over the Florida state line. It wound up being yukky canned, Donald Duck orange juice but we'd save the can for a souvenir.
One Christmas, my dad's friend who had retired to Vero Beach, invited us to come to Vero for a visit. Dad drove our '67 Ford LTD to the beach and it was love at first sight. Dad's (Al's) favorite fruit was always Indian River Citrus. Even when we lived up in Pennsylvania in the 60's, he'd start each morning with a half a grapefruit. For a family treat, Dad would squeeze us fresh orange juice for Sunday breakfast before church. Our family so badly wanted to move to Florida but Dad couldn't figure out how to make a living in paradise. Eager to start his own business, and longing to move to Florida, we sold our house in PA and moved to a 2 bedroom condo in Vero Beach. My older brothers were both in college back in PA and I was in 8th grade. The Florida land boom was on and Dad tried his hand at selling real estate. He did well but his heart just was not in it. We lived surrounded by miles and miles of gorgeous citrus groves and all Dad could think of was someday selling citrus to the folks he'd left behind up north. All they had back in Pennsylvania grocery stores was Sunkist oranges from California. He knew his beloved, Indian River Citrus was ten times sweeter and juicier so he set his mind to write ads and mail them to northern folks. Although he failed many times, he finally got some help from a friend who owned a packinghouse in Fort Pierce and wanted to invest in Al's dream. They mailed their first big ad campaign in April of 1977 but lost money “bigtime”! Dad figured out the hard way that folks really wanted to order citrus for Christmas gifts instead of Easter, so he began his ad campaign in October of the following year and the rest is history.
Tragedy struck on Thanksgiving Day in 1981. With our whole family gathered together my mother, Jeanne collapsed on the kitchen floor while preparing the meal. An ambulance rushed her to the hospital where they discovered a tumor the size of a grapefruit had ruptured in her abdomen. Later diagnosed with Lymphoma cancer, she very nearly bled to death that night. I'll never forget the look on Dad's face when the doctor told us at 3 a.m. that mom's chances for survival were “very grim”. While mom was in surgery I remember our pastor reading us a bible scripture in the waiting room- Romans 8:28 “God works for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.” Mom received 16 units of blood that night and miraculously survived the surgery to stop the bleeding. With regained hope, Dad flew Mom to Sydney Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, MA where my middle brother Ken was doing his residency studying to be a doctor of pharmacy. The doctors told my parents they would have to stay in Boston for at least 6 months for her chemo treatments. It was all up to me and my oldest brother Jim to keep the family business going. I withdrew from the Univ. of Central Florida in Orlando and quit my part-time job as a waiter to head back home to Vero. By the grace of God, mom received a healing and I eventually went back to college to complete my business degree in 1983. After college, I headed back to Vero Beach to work with my Dad in the family citrus business.
Al's story- The son of German immigrants, my dad's life was turned upside down when his father died suddenly of a heart attack when he was only 14. Facing poverty, Al immediately took a job at the local grocery store after school to help earn money to support his family. After fighting in World War II, Al fell in love with my mother Jeanne and they married. With just $50 between them, Dad took on several jobs after Mom had to quit work to take care of my big brother Jim. Providing for his family with little education meant a lifetime of hard work and stress that eventually took a great toll on his health.
Al's final day- On May 5, 1987, I was supposed to drive to Vidalia, Georgia to pack our onion crop for shipping. My back was really bothering me from an old football injury so I asked Dad to drive me there and help me pack the onions. When I arrived at his apartment to switch cars, I immediately knew he was extremely ill. He was white as a ghost so I told Mom there was no time for an ambulance. I'll never forget having to tie my own father's shoes for him as he was that weak. She and I put him in her car to rush him to the hospital but he demanded that she stop the car and roll down the window to deliver me these words- “Whatever you do son, don't push too hard.” I told him I loved him and drove myself to Georgia. I arrived at the Vidalia Motor Lodge to a message on the switchboard to call the hospital. I pleaded with a nurse to tell me what's happened to my father. She eventually told me Al died in an air ambulance on the way to a hospital in Orlando. She went on to tell me that the crew reported he “flat-lined” seven times during the flight and was revived but on the eighth time they could no longer save him. Al lost the fight of his life at age 63. My only hope is that he had time to get right with the one true savior, Jesus Christ on that flight so I'll see him in heaven one day. Al was a good and generous man, active in his church who loved people and would do anything for his friends and family. He loved quality and hated a halfway job. He always did his very best and I learned so much more from him about business than I ever did in college. Al and Jeanne Schorner have long since passed away but I hope they are proud of the mission statement their lives influenced in me: “Let everything we do be a blessing to our customers.”
Written by Jeff Schorner (Al's youngest son)
Then and now-
Today, Al's Family Farms is run by Al's youngest son, Jeff Schorner and his wife Sharon along with 3rd generation grandsons Bradley 17 and Matthew 13. They don't just sell citrus anymore. Each season the Schorner's carefully select the absolute finest crops of Indian River Fruit grown from Fort Pierce to Vero Beach. They harvest the fresh fruit themselves; then wash, wax and sort it in their very own packinghouse located at the Big Red Barn, a historic landmark in Fort Pierce. Like his father, Jeff makes sure the prettiest and best fruit is packed carefully into gift fruit boxes for shipment to folks outside of Florida. The remaining fruit is bagged or squeezed into perfect juice. When they're not in school, Brad gets the picking crews started in the groves and runs the forklifts and machinery. Matt helps with the box closing line and making orange juice. Both boys mow the grass and plant the flowers. They even help Sharon grading fruit and making homemade fudge. Since Matt loves to cook, he helps in our Red Barn Grill Restaurant. We invite you to come along on a guided tour of Al's Family Farms from January through Easter. You'll learn lot's of cool citrus facts and trivia, enjoy a good meal and see first hand how this family business still does things “the old fashioned way.”