The last of his kind, Al Repetto limps among his Temple and his navel oranges, looking at them, examining leaves, happy at the health of this tree, scowling at the brown leaves of another, wondering what the future might bring.
He will be 80 soon. He was born in Pinellas when citrus was king, when there seemed to be groves on every block and along every dirt road, when the crisp winter air was perfumed by orange trees in delectable blossom.
Now Repetto and his two little groves are all that is left in a county where some people say Florida's commercial citrus industry got its start. During his lifetime, he watched a small rural county turn into into a booming urban county with more than 800,000 residents. Citrus growers came to understand there was more profit in housing developments than orange blossoms.
Proud to be called stubborn, Repetto resisted.
"I'm the last of the Mohicans," he says.
In 1946, just out of the military, he and his brother-in-law bought a neglected collection of trees they named Orange Blossom Groves in what was then called Largo and is now part of Seminole. Three years later, they opened a sister operation on a lonely county road in Clearwater that is now U.S. 19.
Today, Repetto has 37 acres and more than 3,000 trees. He also has a feeling of disbelief. Only a half-century ago, hundreds of family groves sprawled across 17,000 acres between Tarpon Springs and St. Petersburg. Pinellas, the smallest county by area in the state, managed to rank seventh in orange production and second in grapefruit.
Pinellas grove owners were famous for bragging about the quality of their fruit, ripened to perfection thanks to ample rainfall, cool nights and sandy soil. They bragged about the past, present and future. "No grove owner in his right mind and with a good productive grove is going to cut up his grove into a subdivision," Herbert Mayer told the Tampa Tribune in 1950.
But Mayer sold his grove. They all did, unless they died first. In that case, their survivors sold the groves.
Margueritte Thurston, Al Repetto's old friend, swore she'd never give up her grove, purchased by her husband, J.T. Thurston, in 1917. As the 20th century drew to an end, the widow became adept at dismissing pushy developers who coveted her land. She was 92 when she passed away in 1998. Her 38-acre grove, the largest remaining in Pinellas, was sold for $3.8-million to pay estate taxes.
Bulldozers swept away the trees. Now the property next to the Pinellas Trail in Seminole is growing half-million-dollar homes instead of Duncan grapefruit and Temple oranges. The development is called Thurston Groves.
There is no grove, not even a small one, left in Thurston Groves. There is not even a single orange tree.
The only oranges are of the painted variety. They decorate road signs.
Pinellas was "country'
Late afternoon, Clearwater. Traffic creeps up U.S. 19 past Toyota dealerships and Burger Kings and intersections claimed by CVS, Walgreens and Eckerd pharmacies. Electricity hums in the high-tension wires above. In his grove, Al Repetto listens to the soundtrack of urban Pinellas and shakes his head.
"When I was growing up," he says in his trademark fried-fish drawl, "this was country."
His family traveled 10 miles to find the nearest doctor. The mailman drove 35 miles to serve only 70 clients. Boys traipsed barefoot through pines to the bayou to throw nets over mullet they ate that night for supper. They shot at squirrels with homemade slingshots, though easier targets included the great globes of oranges and grapefruit hanging from more than a million trees.
World War II began; Repetto rode the South's most famous train, the Orange Blossom Special, north for induction into the Navy. After his discharge, he looked up kin and started a grove. Bud Hutchison did the office work. Repetto, rawboned and muscular, preferred dirty hands. Known as a "fruit hog" because of his picking prowess, he raced from tree to tree, filling a canvas bag with oranges and grapefruit and then going back for more.
"I was a two-handed picker," he says with pride five decades later.
It was the Spaniards who brought citrus to La Florida in the 16th century. First planted near St. Augustine, orange trees migrated south with travelers. When William Bartram visited north-central Florida in 1774 he found Seminole Indians raising cattle and oranges near Paynes Prairie.
In the early 1800s, Count Odet Philippe, whose claims of French nobility were never confirmed, sailed a schooner into Tampa Bay and followed the coast to what is present-day Safety Harbor. Philippe may have been a champion prevaricator about his Old World past, but he did plant what some historians think was probably the first honest-to-goodness commercial citrus grove in the New World. Federal troops from Tampa who fought the Seminoles in 1835 resisted scurvy by eating oranges and grapefruit supplied by the Count of Pinellas.
In 1895, after a catastrophic freeze destroyed North Florida's citrus industry, many more growers flocked to the undeveloped Pinellas peninsula and its freeze-thwarting balmy breezes. By the early 20th century, citrus in Pinellas was almost as famous as its weather and fishing. Tourists by the thousands mailed home colorful postcards depicting the romance of Pinellas life _ mainly homemakers plucking their breakfast from bountiful trees.
Some groves covered 15 city blocks. They covered much of today's St. Petersburg, generally along the waterfront, close to convenient shipping and railroad lines. In mid county, they often lined "the ridge," the high, sandy soil that parallels today's Seminole Boulevard and Ridge Road, where Al Repetto grows oranges to this day.
In the fall, thousands of residents shipped citrus home in time for Christmas. The wooden crates used by citrus growers were typically covered by colorful labels showing leaping tarpon or sun-drenched palms or Florida maps pointing out the blessed county of the orange. Orange-crate art, as such labels were known, all but shouted "Pinellas County."
"When a county as small as Pinellas loses agriculture, the effect goes beyond economic loss," says University of South Florida historian Ray Arsenault, author of St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream.
"Citrus helped create a sense of place here. There were rhythms to the seasons, there was character, visible to all. Now those places are subdivisions and strip malls."
A 37-acre holdout
Drive a couple of hours through Pinellas and you'll see at least one form of agriculture. Dozens of nurseries grow palms and sod for landscapers and for back yards. They will even sell you an orange tree. Behind the Publix and the State Farm Insurance office, behind the Home Depot and the Raytheon plant, you might even find a pasture or two containing a lonely horse or lovesick bull. But don't strain your eyes looking for much more.
Practically every day, somebody calls Jim Smith's office in Clearwater and asks for lower property taxes because they want to use their land for agriculture. The county property appraiser tries to be polite.
Residents tell Smith they want to raise a couple of llamas in their backyard. They tell him about their chickens, and about their plan to sell eggs from the driveway. But hobbyist weekend farmers never receive what appraisers call a "greenbelt exemption."
To get a greenbelt exemption, or to keep one, residents have to prove they can make a living from their land. Greenbelts are almost impossible to acquire in Pinellas because there is so little open land available.
Workers in Smith's office have learned to ask pointed questions. They seldom treat replies to their pointed questions as necessarily the gospel truth. Smith recalls the time he used a helicopter to verify a resident's claim.
"We flew over this pasture near Lake Tarpon and began looking for cattle. Nothing. Finally, we saw a single cow at a lonely salt lick. We got right over her with that helicopter. We're taking video, the chopper blades are going whup, whup, whup. I think she was the most frightened, confused cow remaining in Pinellas. She was the whole cattle operation. The owner did not get the exemption."
In other Central Florida counties, agriculture exemptions, especially for citrus, are routine. In 2002, Polk County growers farmed 101,202 acres and 11,625,500 citrus trees, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture. Hillsborough citrus farmers cultivated 2,605,999 trees on 23,734 acres. Manatee had 21,922 acres and 2,735,400 trees.
The state's official numbers for Pinellas?
Thirty-eight acres and 3,600 trees.
Say hello to Al Repetto.
"Too dumb' to quit
Winter is hectic at Orange Blossom Groves. Workers pick fruit frantically every morning. Inside the warehouse, other workers wash and wax it. In offices, workers sit at computers and take orders by telephone. Most fruit ends up packed and shipped out of state.
There's a walk-in operation, too. Tourists and residents _ almost all of them have white hair _ buy oranges and grapefruit by the paper sack. They buy orange ice cream and grapefruit candy. They buy fresh-squeezed O.J. But Repetto has learned that a man can't live by citrus alone in Pinellas County. He also sells vegetables, strawberries, pasta, bread and milk. He employs 300 people.
Of course, other citrus specialty stores continue to have a home in Pinellas. They are citrus boutiques rather than old-fashioned citrus operations. They sell oranges and juice to tourists but import everything from outside the county.
"It's a tough business now," Al Repetto says.
When the weather is perfect, every grower in the state enjoys a bumper crop, but prices fall like a runaway elevator and so do profits. During a cold year, when citrus is damaged, prices shoot up. "But then you do well at the expense of a friend," Repetto says. He has a lot of citrus-growing friends in other counties.
Brazil now grows more oranges than Florida for reasons that include cheap land and labor. Some people have stopped eating citrus products because certain fad diets emphasize the consumption of protein and elimination of sugars.
Almost every week a developer calls on Repetto with a generous offer. He remembers the time, years ago, when he sold a hunk of grove in Seminole for $3,500 and thought he was rich. Lately he has been turning down offers that would make him an instant millionaire.
"Now I'm too dumb to know when to quit," he says. "I'd hate to sell even an acre. It would ruin my groves."
His son-in-law, Richard Miller, has worked beside him for 30 years. "Al eats and sleeps citrus," Miller says. The old man is in the grove every day, twice a day. He no longer climbs a ladder and no longer fills a bag like a fruit hog. But he looks like he could. Although his Size 13 feet ache from arthritis, he's not afraid to work. He is tall enough to reach an orange in the middle of a tree without a ladder. His leathery hands, the size of an outfielder's mitt, can hold three grapefruit at a time.
"I think he works seven days a week because he wants to make sure that I'm working seven days a week," Miller says. "Al is still strong as an ox."
In April he will celebrate his birthday, likely in good health. But one day he may feel differently or he may even be gone. What happens to the last orange groves then?
"I don't know what will happen then," Richard Miller says. Miller is 49 and has three children who work at least part time at Orange Blossom.
"Some of these figures the real estate people throw around are kind of crazy. It's not like we'll be chomping at the bit to sell, but the business isn't as fun as it used to be."
No seeds, no peel
Many of Al Repetto's oldest customers and dearest friends in the business have passed away. They were the ones who advised him about orange varieties and fertilizers and soil chemistry and how to keep orange trees warm in a cold snap. His old customers were the ones who shipped fruit north every winter no matter what. As a rule, the young people don't ship citrus anymore. Nor do they stop to buy fruit to take home in a paper bag.
"Young people think peeling an orange is a pain," Richard Miller says. "On the other hand, the market for sectioned fruit has gone up. We peel it and sell it in containers."
"As long as it doesn't have seeds, they'll buy it," Al Repetto interjects. "People today, they can't cope with seeds."
The sweetest variety of grapefruit in the world, the Duncan, was developed in Pinellas more than a century ago. It is a seedy variety. In the 21st-century, there is no demand for Duncans and therefore no profit. Instead, Al Repetto grows seedless Ruby Reds in a grove that his records indicate was first planted by somebody named Zacheus Allen in 1870. Al Repetto likes having a place in history.
As he talks about sad changes, a cold breeze drifts through his trees, and it makes him feel better. Cold is good. Cold sweetens an orange.
First thing in the morning, his workers will be in the groves with their bags and with their ladders. Some workers are young bucks, new to business, enthused for at least the first few hours when they have the energy to pick like there is no tomorrow.
Al Repetto believes in loyalty. Some of his pickers, their hair and teeth gone, have been with him from the beginning.
Canvas bags hanging from their bony shoulders, they hobble among the trees, picking Temples and navels in the dawn. When they get tired they lean on canes.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or klinksptimes.com.
Calvin Seay, 66, moves his ladder to a tangelo tree at Orange Blossom groves in Clearwater, part of the last commercial citrus grove in Pinellas County. Seay of Lakeland has been picking fruit in Florida for 50 years. "I like working by myself," Seay says. "Picking fruit has been my life."
The only oranges left in the Thurston Groves subdivision in Seminole are on the road signs. The area once was a citrus grove.
Charlie McCormick, 63, grades Minneola tangelos at Orange Blossom Groves. The best fruit will be shipped to customers; scared or bruised fruit will be used for juice. The Minneola tangelo is a hybrid of a Duncan grapefruit and a Dancy tangerine. It was introduced in 1930.
Susana Baxcajay stacks trays of Minneola tangelos, also known as honeybell tangelos, at Orange Blossom Groves in Clearwater. The fruit will be shipped to customers.