You can thank Christopher Columbus for the orange juice in your glass this morning.
Spanish conquistadors on Columbus’ ships brought orange seeds with them to plant at the settlement in St. Augustine. Within a few years, wild orange trees were growing along the St. Johns River and across Central Florida, likely via seeds and fruit carried by Native Americans.
Now, centuries later, citrus is the state’s most important agribusiness; Florida grows more than half of the oranges in the country, sending $9 billion into state coffers annually. Most of the fruit — 90 percent — is turned into orange juice: the equivalent of 3.2 gallons of OJ for every man, woman and child in the country each year.
A Growing Industry
Today, orange and grapefruit groves cover half a million acres of state land, spreading east and west from the Orlando area and south to the edges of the Everglades. The back roads around Lake Wales are a picture of Old Florida in the winter, with postcard-like views of trees full of bright orange orbs dotting the hillsides.
But the industry as we know it actually began farther north. The first cultivated orange trees were planted around Ocala in the early 1800s and spread down to Tampa and Orlando.
Getting fruit to market in the early days was difficult, says Bob Norberg, deputy director of research at the state’s Department of Citrus. Until railways arrived, shipping in wagon barrels was the only practical option for moving the fruit north. Credit the rail lines, established after the Civil War, for the colorfully labeled orange crates that became the preferred shipping method. Customers in frigid climes were eager for this winter taste of the tropics, and growers stepped up their production fivefold.
Valencia is the state’s star orange variety, and Hamlin is a close second. “Valencias stay on the tree longer and are generally sweeter and juicier,” says Norberg, citing the soil and the climate as key ingredients. Plus, Valencias and Hamlins are basically seedless, which makes for easy eating or juicing.
Grapefruit was a latecomer to the citrus party. A hybrid of the pomelo and the orange, it arrived from the Caribbean to the state’s west coast in the early 19th Century, courtesy of the French count Odet Philippe. Production of the big, tart fruit spread eastward and has now become synonymous with Indian River County district, centered in Vero Beach, where Ruby Red, Star Ruby and other top varieties are grown.
Unlike oranges, the wealth from grapefruit is in the fresh whole fruits, much of which is exported to Europe and Asia, where Florida’s varieties are con- sidered a delicacy. Only half of the state’s crop is juiced.
Over the last century, the state’s citrus growers have gone up against freezes, developers and pests that threaten the groves. And though some gave up, many of them stuck it out, moving their orchards south, below the I-4 corridor, for better climate. Several groves have remained in the same families for generations, such as Ben Hill Griffin’s, in Frostproof, and Leroy Smith’s, in Vero Beach. And much of the farm production is still done the traditional way, with citrus being handpicked, says Mark Ritenour, associate professor and citrus specialist working with the University of Florida.
Oranges have long been tied to Florida tourism, too: Countless postcards sent back home in the ’40s and ’50s featured bathing beauties picking the fruit, adding to the fervor for citrus, as well as enticing more people to visit. The Orange Bowl, held each year in Miami, is kicked off with the King Orange Parade; the state flower is the tiny white orange blossom; and state tags advertise citrus wherever Floridians drive.
Visitors can still find roadside fruit stands in Central Florida, and, especially along the older north-south routes, a few remaining attractions, such as Clermont’s Citrus Tower, erected in 1956 to give visitors a bird’s- eye view of all the groves (though today you see more houses than orchards). And as it’s been from the 1950s to this day, all south- bound drivers can stop at a VISIT FLORIDA Official Florida Welcome Center near the border for a free glass of fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice, compliments of the Sunshine State.
Did you know?
1. Orange trees are grown from seeds and mature at 25 years; they can produce fruit for 100 years.
2. It takes six to nine months after blossoming for the tree to bear fruit. Valencia oranges are unique in that their growing season is 18 months and the tree has two crops on it at the same time.
3. Bees aren’t needed for citrus pollination, but are brought to groves by beekeepers to make orange-blossom honey.
4. One truckload of oranges produces 6,500 half-gallon cartons of orange juice — that’s the fruit of 18 trees.
5. A tangelo is a cross between a tangerine and a grapefruit
6. Grapefruit growers hope for harsher summers that stress trees and make the fruit more nutritious.
7. Most oranges are processed into juice within 24 hours of picking.
8. There’s no waste in orange-juice processing — spent orange and grapefruit peels and pulp are turned into pellets, which are fed to cattle.
9. A cup of orange juice has 112 calories and 200 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C.
If you go…
Want to tour a working grove? These three spots let you see, sip and shop.
Florida’s Natural Grove House
20160 U.S. Hwy. 27, Lake Wales
First organized in 1933, this is now one of the state’s largest growers cooperatives. Tours Monday through Saturday in season.
Al’s Family Farms
2001 N. Kings Hwy., Fort Pierce
This third-generation business grows more varieties than anyone else in the region. Tours Monday through Saturday in season.
Mixon Fruit Farms
2525 27th St. East, Bradenton
Take a tractor-pulled Orange Blossom Express ride through the groves; then visit the store. Tours Monday through Saturday in season.