Thursday, December 14, 2017
News Roundup

Honeybells help Ruskin's Dooley Groves ring in a new beginning

RUSKIN

Together, the couple made a choice.

Citrus canker broke their hearts when it burned their farm out in 2005. Nearly all 22,000 citrus trees — almost the entire grove — were eliminated when the Division of Plant Industry discovered 200 infected trees.

Mike Houghtaling cried when Dooley Groves, the farm that has been in his family since his great-grandfather planted there in 1890, was destroyed.

But after some time passed, he and his wife, Diane, made up their minds: They would replant.

It's not an easy thing to watch your family's history and livelihood disappear before your eyes and then look out at the land and decide to take that gamble all over again. But the Houghtaling family isn't one to give up.

"We decided not to die, honestly," Diane Houghtaling said. "We decided to replant and move forward. It's not as big, but we're getting there."

Now, with 8,000 trees spread over 25 acres, the Houghtalings welcome their inaugural season of honeybells. The trees are two or three years old and stand between 5 and 7 feet tall — a perfect height for visitors to go through and pick on their own.

"People like to know where their food comes from," Mike said. "They like to come out here and see it and pick it themselves. The local food movement is real."

• • •

Of all the fruits grown in Florida, honeybells are probably the most rare, Mike said. For those unfamiliar with honeybells, they are a hybrid of a tangerine and a pomelo, or grapefruit. Similar in appearance to oranges, they're distinguished by their taste — more mild, less sweet. They're sometimes called honeybell tangelos.

To say a honeybell is juicy would be an understatement. People sampling the fruit at Dooley Farms can be seen leaning forward, trying to avoid making a mess on their clothes. The juice drips down their chins and is wiped away by hands, sleeves or napkins — whatever is closest. The Houghtalings sell honeybell bibs in their store, as much a joke as a necessity.

On a Thursday in January in the middle of honeybell season, friends vacationing in Florida from Arkansas saw a sign for the farm on U.S. 41 and decided to visit the grove.

"They're good," said Dale Wagner, who had never tried one before. "We enjoy them and will probably come back to get some more before we go north."

Wagner and his friends strolled through the grove, the green leaves and orange fruit creating an idyllic Florida picture against the clear blue sky.

Joyce Champion said she enjoys cooking and will experiment with the honeybells, whose season lasts until the end of February.

"They'd probably be good in an orange sauce over a chicken or in a barbecue sauce," she said as she filled her basket with the fresh fruit.

Diane often shares the recipe for honeybell pie with her customers. It's similar to a lemon meringue pie, but better, she said.

Though they do a decent amount of business during the week, Diane said the weekends are chaos. Overall, she said, their inaugural season is off to a good start.

"We didn't know how much fruit we would grow or how the season would go," Mike said. "Everything is exceeding expectations."

The next day, Diane giggled as she watched cars drive in one after another from all over Hillsborough County. The full lot made her giddy with pride and hopeful about the farm's recovery.

"Look at this," she said, tears in her eyes as more cars drove in. "This is unbelievable."

Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.

     
 
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