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Citrus groves fight for a comeback

Planting citrus isn't for the shortsighted. It isn't done to get quick turnaround on a buck.

So, if you see new trees — either a few rows replacing old, diseased specimens or a whole new grove — you can be pretty sure the landowner has no other plans for that property for a good long while.

And this commitment to agriculture, this statement that landowners are trying to make money by actually growing things on the fertile belt between Brooksville and Dade City, means they are not counting on another potential moneymaker — selling out to developers. "Growing Yankees," some old-time farmers used to call it.

The telltale signs of landowners just counting the years, waiting for this ultimate cash-out? Mostly it's simple neglect: weedy groves, fruit left to die on trees, mats of skunk vine draped over trees like too-large overcoats.

These have all been common sights since the freezes of the 1980s.

But now? Seems as though more grove owners give a darn, or more than a darn. You see old, sick trees pulled out; new, young ones planted; more owners regularly mowing their groves; more tractors pulling overhead trimmers to give rows of trees their annual spring crew cuts.

And, maybe most significantly, you can see a new, spare-no-expense, 60-acre grove on the crest of Mondon Hill east of Brooksville — each chest-high tree linked to an irrigation line, each trunk encased in its own protective plastic tube.

This prime hilltop for citrus — elevation is the best defense against frost — is owned by the Thomas family, which also owns a nearby hilltop that a few years ago was considered prime for development. That would be Hickory Hill, which gave its name to a collection of super-high-end homes and golf courses that was planned and approved but, like so many others, never built.

So are all the land-owning big shots returning to the days of their daddies and granddaddies, when nobody could imagine that stucco might make a better cash crop than citrus?

Not quite.

For one thing, what's going on with citrus is far from a boom.

The number of acres planted in groves has been dropping in Florida since 1996, and in just the past three years the total acreage in Pasco and Hernando has fallen from 8,532 to 7,840.

Also, the price of fruit, after a few good years, has fallen again this year. And then there's the triple disease threat of citrus canker, citrus tristeza and the dreaded citrus greening, which clogs trees' vascular systems like cholesterol clogs human arteries.

It's carried by small flies, is always fatal, and "it seems to be getting everywhere," said Joe Melton, 47, a member of a longtime farming family east of Brooksville.

Together, family members own 140 acres of groves, and Melton said that a few years ago, "I was thinking of selling mine, and then everything fell apart with the housing, and the trees were already there, so I started trying to bring them back."

The greening had one benefit: It helped drive up prices. And since more and more groves are trying to take advantage, and because running a productive grove these days means routinely replacing trees, it has created the market for Melton's new venture — a citrus nursery.

"There's planting going on all the time now," he said. "It's just not new planting; it's replanting."

A lot of this is happening in formerly bound-for-development groves that have been dormant for years, said Dean Saunders, a longtime real estate broker in Lakeland, near the heart of the state's citrus-growing region.

His company even included a section on this trend in his company's recent state-of-the-market report, "Lay of the Land."

"Properties once intended for development are now being purchased by buyers for replanting to citrus," the report said. "Many of those tracts were lender-owned and entitled for development."

"This is a phenomenon we haven't seen in 15 or 20 years," Saunders said.

By the way, the long-term upward trend in prices that has helped bring about this slight revival is due strictly to a decrease in the supply of citrus. Demand has been absolutely flat.

So if you want to help the local industry, if you want rural vistas with more groves and fewer homes, do your part.

Peel yourself a peeled tangerine. Put a few slices of a navel orange in your kid's lunch box. Squeeze a few HoneyBells for a glass of super-fresh juice or, better yet, mix it with a bit of vodka for an evening screwdriver.

Trust me, it's not exactly a sacrifice.

Citrus groves fight for a comeback 12/06/12 [Last modified: Thursday, December 6, 2012 6:35pm]
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