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The journey from France to Florida, citrus to trees

When they were little boys, they boxed each other.

Now, J.C. and Eric Tort run the Sun City Tree Farm together.

J.C. and Eric, along with their father, Henry, and J.C.'s sons Vincent and Philippe are scheduled to be honored as the farm family of the year today at the Harvest Awards luncheon that kicks off the 10th annual Hillsborough County Fair at Raymond James Stadium.

The awards recognize the achievements of the county's agricultural families, individuals and companies.

"We've been working together 40 years," Eric, 54, said. "We deserve an award."

The brothers still pull out the figurative boxing gloves occasionally, they admit.

"We almost killed each other a couple times," J.C., 57, said.

But the family ties always helped them resolve conflicts.

"Everybody has a different opinion of how to do things," J.C. said. "You have to listen to ideas, and sometimes yours is better, and sometimes theirs is."

Henry Tort brought his family to the United States from France in 1979 to make the most of this land of opportunity, J.C. said.

Their journey started in Morocco, where Henry owned a 1,000-acre vineyard started by his father in 1912. When that country nationalized its farms in 1962, the government seized the Tort family land and gave them 24 hours to leave Morocco.

"We were French nationals," J.C. said. "So we went to France."

The family launched a sheep and cattle farm in southern France but never felt comfortable there. They came to the United States hoping to open another vineyard and settled in Florida because real estate was too expensive in California.

The Torts started with 350 acres of citrus groves and grapes in northern Manatee County. The freeze of 1989 and fierce competition from Brazilian orange growers stymied that business.

After Henry retired, J.C. and Eric launched the Sun City Tree Farm with 5 acres. It has expanded to more than 150 acres filled with crape myrtle, cedar, elms, hollies, magnolias, maples, oaks and other trees destined for landscapers and retailers from Jacksonville to Miami.

The tree farm employs 30 people and grosses $2-million annually.

"We generate on half of (the land we had) almost 10 times more (revenue) than when we were in the citrus business," J.C. said.

Henry, 82, still comes to the farm every day to sort mail, make bank deposits and handle other errands.

J.C.'s son Vincent, 27, who earned a degree in communications from the University of South Florida, joined the family business after contemplating careers in finance and architecture.

"We made him an offer he couldn't refuse," Eric said.

Philippe, 21, who works part time for his father and uncle, is studying landscape design and wants to start his own business.

Eric said his son, Oliver, 20, is studying horticulture at the University of Florida and plans to join the family business "if he doesn't change his mind again."

"Kids don't come into this (kind of) business anymore," J.C. said. "It's not very glamorous. There are other opportunities."

A selection committee named the Torts farm family of the year because of their determination and their progressive farming practices, said Mike McKinney, a Hillsborough County Cooperative Extension agent who coordinates the Harvest Awards program.

The committee was impressed, he said, that the Torts came to a foreign country and emerged as leaders in the agricultural community.

In October, Sun City Tree Farm received the 2003 Governor's Award for Ag-Environmental Leadership from the Florida Farm Bureau. The Torts were lauded for turning all plant waste into mulch and using a drip irrigation system. Their conservation efforts kept them well under their permitted water quantities.

Eric and J.C. also invented a tree support system that keeps potted trees standing in even the strongest wind. It entered the market earlier this year.

"They're excellent agriculturalists," McKinney said. "They're conservationists, they're innovators. They have all the qualities of an outstanding farm family."