Kumquat Festival is on, but freeze cuts Pasco's kumquat crop in half

DADE CITY — The recent cold snap wiped out east Pasco's kumquat crop, but the 13th annual celebration of the peculiar orange fruit is still on for Jan. 30.

Kumquat Growers Inc., the festival's fruit provider since its inception, harvested about 220 bushels before this weekend's freeze.

A little more than half of the bushels, each weighing about 40 pounds, will be shipped to buyers. The rest are stored in coolers, reserved for the festival.

"We're going to have to be stingy with them," said Frank Gude, co-owner of Kumquat Growers, the nation's largest producer and shipper of the tiny, tangy fruit.

"Certainly don't want to have a kumquat festival without kumquats."

Each year, about 30,000 to 40,000 people descend on Dade City to honor the small sour citrus that is grown in the area and shipped all over the world.

Organizers say the event is growing in popularity. In 2008, a couple wed during the festival. Kumquat and Dade City queens and their courts were bridesmaids, a local bakery made a kumquat wedding pie. Last year, the festival was advertised on Tampa's Super Bowl Web site.

This year, representatives of Walt Disney World's horticulture division at Epcot will bring in Mickey and Minnie Mouse topiaries.

The Dade City Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the festival, has received multiple calls inquiring whether the freeze would cancel the event.

"The festival is on. It's on rain or shine, cold, hot, whatever the weather is," said Nita Beckwith, the chamber's executive director. "We're not canceling it for any reason."

The festival, held every year on the last Saturday in January, sometimes conflicts with the Gasparilla pirate invasion in Tampa. That's kind of the point.

"Gasparilla has its own age group and we have ours," said Joey Wubbena, the event's general manager.

Kumquat season traditionally lasts from mid November to mid March. Kumquat Growers brings about $500,000 to the area each season, mostly paid out in payroll and supplies, Gude said. This year's freeze cut the season painfully short.

"We're going to do about half the business we normally do," he said.

Gude has laid off his 40 pickers for the season. His other 10 employees are packing up the last orders, and then they'll be done for the season, too.

"They only worked about eight weeks, so they're not even eligible for unemployment," Gude said.

The last time a freeze wreaked this much havoc on the kumquat was in 1985.

The big difference, though, is in 1985 Kumquat Growers lost their trees; this year they haven't seen any tree damage.

"It's devastating to us, but we learn to live with it," Gude said. "We just feel kind of helpless. We have to depend on nature and see what it does for us."

Times staff writer Bridget Hall Grumet contributed to this report. Helen Anne Travis can be reached at htravis@sptimes.com or (813) 435-7312.

Fast facts

If you go

The 13th annual Kumquat Festival will be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Jan. 30 in downtown Dade City.

Kumquat Festival is on, but freeze cuts Pasco's kumquat crop in half 01/12/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 10:01pm]

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