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Citrus grove grew with owner's passion

ODESSA — Bill Burchenal drives into his groves in the early morning, when the sunlight is golden and the shadows are long. On some winter dawns he sees deer scraping antlers in the branches of his trees or red-tailed hawks trying to scare up a rabbit for breakfast. Usually he stops to admire his oranges, his tangerines, his grapefruit.

He leaves his Dodge pickup in the middle of the grove, plucks a Duncan grapefruit from a groaning branch and slices it in half. As he gobbles, juice drips down his chin.

Probably because he is 80, and probably because he is passionate about his work, folks who meet him assume he is one of those citrus barons. You know, an old-timer who grew up in the business, drinks sweet tea — pronounced taye — and sweats orange juice.

In fact he is a relative newcomer to the citrus world.

Thank goodness for newcomers at a time when the citrus business is struggling, when the old ways and the old varieties of fruit are disappearing because of a changing marketplace.

• • •

"It's real peaceful out here,'' Burchenal says during a tour of his 300-acre grove. "That's one of the things I like about what I do. When I'm out in the groves, I feel like I'm in old Florida.''

His business, CeeBee's Citrus, is at 16907 Boy Scout Road, near the spot where Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties bump heads — a pocket of old Florida that is rapidly being crowded out by the new.

Twenty minutes west, traffic creeps along U.S. 19 through Tarpon Springs. Jets land at Tampa International minutes away in the opposite direction.

But at Burchenal's place, life goes on as it always has. The breezes blow through the branches of grapefruit trees planted during the Great Depression by citrus people now gone.

Muscular men perch on tall ladders — gravity be damned — and pick fruit with both hands. Fruit goes from canvas bag to wooden box, from wooden box to conveyer belt, from conveyer belt to cardboard box and fruit stand counter. The work is part postcard, part hard labor. Farm work requires a special breed of person.

"The last thing on earth I ever wanted to be was a farmer,'' Burchenal says.

He grew up on a farm in Ohio. His parents had cattle, chickens, pigs. He could hardly wait to escape to the big city, which in his case was Cincinnati, where he donned a coat and tie and harvested a job in the advertising business.

In 1955, he and his wife moved to Clearwater, where advertising the blessings of Florida life was lucrative work. Of course, new residents of Florida needed homes, and eventually he sold those, too.

As the years passed, he developed an appetite for something other than money. Family roots, perhaps. A connection to Florida's past, perhaps. And that's how an advertising man spoiled his retirement by buying an orange grove at a time when many old-time orangemen were getting rid of them.

• • •

He bought his first grove in 1991. Then he added the one across the road. Since then he's bought an acre there and an acre here. He is proud to be part of the history that began when Columbus brought citrus to the New World in 1492.

Ponce de Leon carried oranges to Florida in 1513, and in the 19th century, the first commercial groves were planted near St. Augustine and today's Safety Harbor in Pinellas.

By mid 20th century, Pinellas was the grapefruit capital of the world, with 19,000 acres. The king of the grapefruit was Dunedin's A.L. Duncan, who grafted buds from pungent grapefruit trees to sour orange tree branches and came up with a Cadillac: Duncan grapefruits, a heavenly blend of sweet and tart.

Jump ahead to the 21st century. The citrus industry has vanished in Pinellas, the state's most urban county. Duncan grapefruit trees still grow in backyards, but they are virtually impossible to find in stores.

Duncans have seeds. Modern Americans, say citrus experts, loathe seedy fruit. Burchenal, as a citrus newcomer, hasn't paid attention to the experts. He tends the old Duncan trees on his property as if they were precious orchids. His grove, and his retail store on Boy Scout Road, are among the few places on earth where a person can actually buy a Duncan grapefruit. If you stumble upon one at another place, and you probably won't, chances are that merchant purchased his Duncans from Burchenal.

"I always ate Duncans,'' Burchenal explains. "Everybody way back ate Duncans. I still eat Duncans. Every day. So of course I'm going to grow and sell Duncans.

"When I first started, I had old-timers driving miles and miles to buy my Duncans. Now I'm getting younger customers. So maybe the word is getting around.''

• • •

Let's not play a funeral dirge for Florida's citrus industry. It's still plenty big. But let us also point out the obvious: Growing citrus is a tough business and getting tougher. Even before the economy headed south, growers were reeling from freezes and heat waves, droughts and floods, voracious insects and disease.

And when everything goes well — why, then there's too much fruit on the market and prices drop. All the while foreign countries south of Florida are outgrowing us. Over the decades many old citrus families have sold their land to new folks who plan a different crop: houses.

"Well, I don't have any regrets,'' the newcomer, Burchenal, tells people. "To tell the truth, I didn't know that I was going to like growing citrus as much as I do. Listen, I used to play golf. I'm grateful that growing citrus saved me from bad golf.''

He grows navel oranges, Hamlins, Early Gold, Valencias. He has plans to grow Temples, an old variety also vanishing from Florida markets. Temples have seeds, soft flesh, don't ship well, have a short shelf life. Mark them for extinction.

He grows Sunburst tangerines, Murcottes and a variety developed in his grove, the Monarch. His groves are home to one of the rarest, and oldest, of tangerine varieties, the Dancy.

Mix the seedy Dancy tangerine stock with the seedy Duncan grapefruit stock and you create a delicious seedless hybrid, the Honeybell. He sells Honeybells starting this month.

When he moved to Florida more than a half-century ago, winter was his favorite time. Wafting on every breeze was the overpowering aroma of citrus blossoms, which covered trees like fallen snow. "It was like you were driving into a perfume factory," Burchenal says, emotion in his voice. "The smell made your eyes water in a good way. It makes me sad that generations of Floridians don't know what it was like in places they live now.''

In February, motorists who travel a certain patch of Boy Scout Road should open their windows and take a deep breath. They will smell Bill Burchenal's citrus perfume. If they are lucky, their eyes will water.

They may also see an old man and his crew digging holes and planting trees at a furious pace.

Burchenal has 15,000 trees growing in his grove now. He recently planted 150 new Duncans. Most likely he will be gone by the time those trees begin bearing fruit in earnest. No matter. He will have done his job.

He is confident that a person who tastes the Cadillac of grapefruit will never go back to a jalopy — even if the jalopy lacks seeds.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

Finding fresh fruit

• For more information about CeeBee's Citrus, call (813) 792-9856 or go to their site.

• The Citrus Place, in Manatee County's Terra Ceia, also sells Duncan grapefruits. For information, call (941) 722-6745.

Citrus grove grew with owner's passion 01/02/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 6, 2009 1:44pm]
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