The clack of the conveyer system resonates through the work area where Kathy Oleson busily sorts through a pile of freshly washed red grapefruit. The ancient machine, purchased during the 1940s by her grandparents, provides a constant soundtrack during her December work days at Boyett's Grove and Citrus Attraction.
This time of year, Oleson, her family and the seasonal workers hired to help process and ship fruit from the storied grove in eastern Hernando County are in top gear as they try to meet the crush of holiday demand. It's not unusual for them to put in 14 hours — and ship more than 250 boxes of fruit — per day.
Oleson, 57, who has been involved in the business pretty much all her life, has few complaints.
"I guess I suppose I could say that I wish I was younger," Oleson said with a laugh as she took a break last week from her duties. "There is a certain amount of redundancy to it, but I still very much enjoy it because it's been so much a part of my life and my family."
Indeed, Boyett's Grove is a throwback to the era, a few decades ago, when Hernando County was dotted with dozens of flourishing citrus groves. But the industry has been in decline since the 1980s. The ravaging effects of freezes, diseases and pests have caused many growers to abandon the industry. In fact, state statistics show that the total acreage of citrus grown in Pasco and Hernando has fallen from 8,532 to 7,840 the past three years.
Oleson, however, remains a believer. She and her husband, Jim, raise the largest variety of commercially grown citrus in Hernando. About two-thirds of their 100 acres are planted with varieties of grapefruit, navel oranges, tangerines, tangelos and limes. She credits this year's abundant crop to favorable weather and the maturing of new trees that replaced aging ones that were susceptible to diseases. These include citrus canker and a more devastating recent threat known as citrus greening, an insect-borne bacteria that attacks and kills citrus.
Oleson said that many of the varieties of oranges at Boyett's were grown on newer root stocks that are more disease-resistant but less tolerant to sub-freezing weather.
"The citrus business has always been risky, and there are limits to what you can do to protect your crop," Oleson said. "You can never have too much luck."
The shipping of fresh fruit follows the growing season, so it's always a race to get the fruit delivered at the peak of its ripeness. Each piece of hand-picked citrus is inspected for flaws, then washed in an anti-bacterial solution and dried before it is packed. The vast majority of Oleson's customers reside in northern states, so the company contracts with the Florida Gift Fruit Shippers Association, a low-cost shipper.
For the next two weeks Oleson's days — and evenings — will be devoted to packing sweet holiday treats for customers. And although the holiday itself brings a brief period of rest, the operation will be in full swing again in January when the first Honeybell oranges, kumquats and other specialty fruit will ripen.
As much as people think that Boyett's Groves is strictly a seasonally oriented business, Oleson likes to point out that the spring and summer months are just as active with pruning, planting and fertilizing of the grove.
"We never get much down time," Oleson offered. "But it's a business that suits us and our family, and we're probably going to continue until we just aren't physically able to any more".
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.