Sorry to see the end of U-pick citrus grove tradition

The fence at the entrance, the earthen embankment you have to climb from White Road, the oaks and the ancient camellia that is almost oak-sized — these all seal off the 4-acre grove and make you feel like you're crossing a definite threshold into a walled garden.

Or made you feel that way, I should say, back when it was open to the public.

Old-timers remember an owner named Lacy Hunter who would leave a stack of buckets for pickers when he wasn't around and an honor box for them to deposit their payments.

I don't go back quite that far, but I loved to visit the grove when it was run by Joe and Blanco Jasko, who bought it in 2001, partly just to keep up the U-pick tradition.

They cut samples of fruit for customers and told them, in the tone of a wine sommelier, about the growing patterns and flavor variations of their kumquats, grapefruit, tangerines and many types of oranges.

They were as indulgent as grandparents toward kids who played in the rows of trees, and generally acted like they couldn't believe they'd been allowed to occupy such an enchanted place.

But both of them were in their 70s, the grove was a lot of work, and buyers offered a lot of money. They sold in 2005 for twice what they'd paid and the grove closed. I rode my bike out there Wednesday morning just to make sure it hadn't re-opened under the current owners and found a locked gate and a for-sale sign.

I also pedaled down Neff Lake Road, where a decade ago a U-pick grove offered red navel oranges. The trees are still there, I think, but no sign that the public is welcome.

So, as far as I know, there isn't a single U-pick citrus grove in Hernando County and, though I haven't checked as carefully there, probably not in Pasco County either.

There's not much money in it, of course. And most growers don't want to risk a customer introducing a disease such as citrus canker, said Joe Hancock of Hancock Grove in Pasco County.

The loss of this tradition isn't a tragedy, I know, but it was a pleasure to load up the kids in the car, spend an hour with the Jaskos and drive back home under the oak canopy on Old Trilby Road. We got fresh air and a little exercise. It reminded us that fruit comes from trees, in groves that must be weeded, watered and fertilized.

And the fruit, like Frazier's sweet corn, tasted better than the offerings at supermarkets. Yes, you can buy local citrus at groves like Hancock's and Boyett's on Spring Lake Highway, or stop at Edward Young's stand on Powell Road. In fact, I recommend you do.

But that doesn't quite replace picking it yourself, which is "part of the citrus experience,'' said Kathy Oleson of Boyett's.

Amen.

When people say what they want for Hernando, they usually talk in terms of chains. They wonder when that Olive Garden will get built or if we'll ever get a Barnes & Noble like the one that recently opened in Wesley Chapel.

I went there a couple of weeks ago. One floor full of books and an elevator that carries you up to yet another. Coffee and easy chairs. I could have spent a day there.

But the cool weather this fall has made for brilliantly colored leaves and fruit. I drive past them on sunny days and think there's nothing I'd like to see more than just one U-pick sign.

Sorry to see the end of U-pick citrus grove tradition 12/11/08 [Last modified: Sunday, December 14, 2008 1:26pm]

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