2012-01-05 / Business News

serving up citrus

Local industry fights to defend Florida’s signature crop
BY NANCI THEORET
Special to Florida Weekly


At Sun Harvest Citrus, visitors can sample five fresh-squeezed citrus juices, including orange, strawberry-orange and cranberry-orange. 
COURTESY PHOTO At Sun Harvest Citrus, visitors can sample five fresh-squeezed citrus juices, including orange, strawberry-orange and cranberry-orange. COURTESY PHOTO THIS TIME OF YEAR, TREES IN MASSIVE groves and backyards start bursting with the colors of Florida’s bumper crop — citrus. The wait time at the local fruit stand or market gets a little longer as locals, visitors and seasonal residents get their dose of vitamin C or send packages of coveted honeybells, grapefruit and ponkans to northern friends and family stuck under sunless gray skies.

Southwest Florida groves produce 25 percent of the state’s citrus within the Gulf Citrus Growers Association’s fivecounty region, a collective 500 farms in Lee, Collier, Hendry, Charlotte and Glades counties. And right now is peak harvest season, which will generate about $1 billion of the state’s $9 billion citrus industry through spring.

Retail sites throughout the tri-county region of Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties are busy, too. Dave Nicely, director of sales and marketing at Sun Harvest Citrus, a citrus retail center and packing house on Metro Parkway in Fort Myers, says the company’s bottom line has improved this year.

“Business has been great,” he says. “Our mail order package counts were up 9 percent this year through the secondto last week of December. Our retail store has been up consistently during all of 2011 over 2010.”

Hank Jacobs, co-owner of the familyrun South Naples Citrus Grove on Sabal Palm Road, says business has been steady and comparable to previous years as it heads into the high-demand months of January through March.

The market and shipping center offers grapefruits, oranges, tangerines and Meyer lemons harvested from a 120-acre grove established by Mr. Jacobs’ fatherin law in 1979. From November through May, the company also sells its citrus at farmers markets from Marco Island to Bonita Springs.

Battling nature

The business-is-good mantra is positive news for an industry that just five years ago faced a dire prognosis. Farmers already battling canker, which rendered fields within a 250-acre radius worthless, faced a more ruthless enemy with the 2005 arrival of the fruit- and tree-killing citrus greening. Extensive research and $50 million invested by Florida’s growers have produced some methods to stave off infestation, carried by Asian psyllids, an insect that secretes a toxic saliva as it feasts on a tree’s leaves and sap.

“Ten to 12 years ago — before canker and greening and economics — our area had close to 200,000 acres of citrus,” says Ron Hamel, executive vice president and general manager of the Fort Myers-based growers association. “Canker took out a lot of trees and acres statewide.”

Some farmers abandoned citrus, reducing the five-county region’s working groves to 165,000 acres in 2008. Today, there are about 130,000 acres, says Mr. Hamel.

In 2004, as research was on the verge of eradicating canker from Florida, four hurricanes crossed the state, aiding the spread of the wind-borne disease, which renders blemished fruit that’s still useable for juice.

“Federal and state programs shut down,” says Mr. Hamel. “They told us we were on our own, that they weren’t taking any more trees out.”

Then came greening and a full-fledged battle. Citrus growers rallied together, hiring the National Academy of Sciences to defend their livelihood. Working with the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee, research during the past six years has pioneered two successful approaches: pre-flush sprayings in December to knock down the psyllid population, and macro- and micro-nutrient infused fertilizers.

“It’s not the panacea,” says Mr. Hamel. “We’re waiting for the silver bullets.”

A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture survey shows additional positive news: Collier, Lee and Hendry counties ranked among the state’s top areas with low psyllid counts. Charlotte County ranked 15 of the 29 counties in the Citrus Health Management Area.

The added defense system, of course, ups the cost-per-acre, however.

“On the positive side, fruit prices are still strong,” says Mr. Hamel. “Growers can still make a little profit.”

Florida is the world’s largest producer of grapefruit and ranks second to Brazil in orange juice production. More than 80 percent of the nation’s orange juice is made from Florida oranges; 87 percent of Florida citrus is processed into orange and grapefruit juices, according to the Florida Department of Citrus.

In Florida, 31 counties produce citrus. Total citrus land accounts for 541,328 acres, down from a peak of 853,742 commercial acres in 1996.

Citrus has been farmed commercially in Florida since the mid-1800s. Christopher Columbus brought citrus to Florida in 1493 and the first orange trees were planted by Spanish explorers in the mid- 1500s in St. Augustine.

Florida’s citrus season coincides with the height of tourist season, bringing sun- and fruit-seeking buyers to enjoy the state’s bounty October-June.

Sun Harvest

At Sun Harvest Citrus, visitors can sample five fresh-squeezed citrus juices, including orange, strawberry-orange and cranberry-orange. “We average about 50 to 100 gallons a day that gets sampled in the store,” says Mr. Nicely, who married into the business; his wife is the founder’s granddaughter. “We juice four to five days a week and make 2,000 gallons a day.”

Sun Harvest’s citrus comes from family run groves near Vero Beach and Florida’s famed Indian River region, known world-wide for its grapefruit. The thirdgeneration company relocated its packinghouse to Fort Myers in 1990, lured by a faster-growing population, tourist draws like Sanibel and Captiva islands and professional spring training baseball camps, and the lack of competition. Its 25,000-square-foot facility includes the retail store, a processing facility and administrative offices with a 16-operator call center.

“We do everything here,” says Mr. Nicely. “Our fruit is delivered the same day it’s picked and is processed the next day.”

An earlier-than-usual honeybell harvest has been an added boon to business. A seedless hybrid of the Dancy tangerine and Duncan grapefruit, honeybells are the Mercedes of eating-oranges. “They peel easily and the juice runs down your arm,” says Mr. Nicely, adding, “We have customers call as early as August to place their honeybell order.”

Half of Sun Harvest’s business is derived from mail orders.

“By the end of Christmas and honeybell season, we’ve shipped 60 percent of our packages for the year,” Mr. Nicely says. “Right now a lot of tourists and seasonal residents are shipping honeybells to their family and friends or the person watching the dog, cat or house.”

Sun Harvest grows 20 varieties of citrus. Seedier oranges are picked exclusively for juice that’s delivered to commercial venues from Marco and Sanibel islands to Fort Myers. Also on store shelves: famed Davidson of Dundee orange candies and jellies, other Florida food items and softserve orange-and-vanilla and chocolateand Key-lime ice cream. “We did 120,000 cones last year,” says Mr. Nicely.

South Naples Citrus

South Naples Citrus Grove was born on 120 acres of Florida scrub land and today sells and ships its juices and fruit packages throughout the U.S. and Canada.

“January through March are our peak months,” says Mr. Jacobs. “We have a lot of seasonal residents buying packages and sending them up north.” Just as at Sun Harvest, honeybells are especially popular, he adds.

The company’s average single-tray citrus order ranges from $29-$59 plus shipping and handling. The retail market also sells orange-blossom honey, grapefruit spoons, jellies and candies. A new program rewards loyal customers by offering $1 off a future purchase for every $10 spent. It’s been popular, says Mr. Jacobs. “Our customers can apply the reward points to their next order or let them accumulate.”

When the citrus season ends, the Jacobs family will summer in Illinois, where they grow and sell vegetables.

Worden Farms

Although its citrus harvest is readily available to paying members, Worden Farms also occasionally makes its Valencia oranges and Meyers lemons harvested on the 85-acre certified organic farm available at area farmers markets.

“We get a pretty good citrus crop,” says co-owner Eva Worden. “We also get citrus from growers we know who have small groves and who don’t spray. There’s a wonderful source in Buckingham that grows ponkans, a type of tangerine that’s super sweet and delicious. It’s a Florida fruit you wouldn’t find in the supermarket. They feel like an old mushy tangerine, but they’re phenomenal. Only those in the know would know about them.”

Worden Farms’ 80 citrus trees are managed and maintained organically as per its mission. “We keep track of our yield on a weekly and seasonal basis, and this year it’s equal or greater than in previous years,” says Ms. Worden.

The farm distributes fresh-grown produce to its membership every Wednesday through the growing season. During one recent pick-up date it hosted a cooking demonstration showcasing orange and fennel slaw.

“Citrus is a wonderful addition to the diet because it’s so nutritious and it’s available when it’s needed most —when there’s less sunlight and people in northern climates might not be as active,” Ms. Worden says.

As Southwest Florida’s citrus harvest kicks into full swing, local retailers and growers remain upbeat.

“There is a lot more optimism in the industry the past few years since greening was found,” says Mr. Hamel. “Ironically, it’s hard to get nursery trees right now because of the strong demand for resets from groves that are putting citrus back in. Growers need to get in touch with their nurseries a year or two ahead.” ¦

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