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Florida Citrus Has a Rich History

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013 by tamara

We’ve all heard it said that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Well I don’t know how it’s going to go out but it most definitely came in like a lion! Frost, freeze, wind and very little rain, the industry was fortunate that we didn’t suffer more damage than we did. Trees in some areas were in full bloom and most others were well on their way. As I said we were really lucky to come away with only minimal damage. Right now bloom looks good but we need rain.

Looking back at the industry throughout its history and the problems we have encountered over the years it’s a wonder we are still around! Let’s take a minute now to look back at just a little history and some early problems our industry has faced.

With the railroads moving deeper into the state, the citrus industry was able to expand in the late 19th century. Realtors promoted Florida as a paradise on earth; the climate was great and the soil could produce anything you wanted to grow on it. Citrus figured into this claim and many people caught the orange fever, knowing all they had to do was plant a grove, sit back, get a suntan and reap the harvest!

There were groves planted as far north as Jacksonville, Hawthorne, Palatka, and Deland and further south into Polk County; even down into the Alva area. Things were really booming and prosperity was just an orange crop away. People had jobs and life was good. Why, packinghouse workers were making as much as 15 cents a box for packing and even up to 10 cents for sorters (graders today), and a field box filler could get 15 cents a box! Packinghouses were built and things were really rolling.

All of this good fortune came to a halt for many during the great freeze of 1894 and 1895. Sound familiar? There had been a few earlier freezes before, but nothing like these. There was one in 1886 that signaled a warning of things to come. Out of those warnings came many ideas to protect trees and the crop. Mr. Stetson in Deland built a slat shack over his grove, some put wooden shelters over their young trees and some growers even sprayed the trees down with water and froze them in so to speak.

Before the great freeze, Florida produced five million boxes of fruit, it would not reach that level of production for almost 20 years following the winter of 1894-95. Many growers left the state after these major freezes and returned north. Some turned the land into other uses. Many growers moved further south after these major freezes. Groves that survived the freeze were well known throughout the state. This period of recovery gave way to a second citrus boom. The town of Keystone was renamed Frostproof after its trees weathered the freezes. Drummetts grove on Merritt Island remained untouched helping to maintain the reputation of Indian River Fruit.

The industry has its fair share of problems today and I guess you can’t really compare the hardships of our forefathers to our troubles. Or can you? They had labor issues, transportation problems, and market fluctuations. When it froze they moved South, and so did we. They did not however have EPA, DNR, Water management, Dept. of Labor, greening and everything else we face.

But I will be willing to bet that when that grower of the late 1800s looked at his operation and his family, his problems then were to him just as insurmountable as ours are to us today. No,he didn’t have all the government, disease and every other problems we have, but he came through those times of devastation and despair and rebuilt an industry. We will also, it may not be quite the same but I for one am very optimistic, greening will be cured in time, trees will be replanted, and this great Florida Citrus Industry will continue just as it has for over one hundred years.

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