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Sweet fruits from growers' labors star at fest

This could have been a bitter year for the sweet fruit that fuels the upcoming Kumquat Festival. But it's not.

It's going to be an excellent year.

While hurricanes slashed across the state and battered the Florida orange and grapefruit crop, kumquat growers in Pasco County fretted but eventually came out of the tumultuous tropical season far ahead of previous years.

"We've got some of the best color we've ever had this year," said Greg Gude, who helps run the kumquat growers packing house in the St. Joseph community. "Largely, we think that's because of the abundance of water."

And largely, Gude admitted, the year is good because . . . well, who knows.

In the past two seasons, the crop was way off, Gude said. Nothing seemed wrong with the fruit; it just didn't want to grow. Experts came in, looked at all the factors and came up with nothing.

It might have been too little rain at critical times; it could have been some tree ailment.

Whatever it was, Gude said, it's gone.

The packing house expects to ship about 36 tons of kumquats this year, and all of it with an excellent orange and yellowish hue, he said. The crop is up about 40 percent over that of last year, when the trees stubbornly refused to produce.

Having lots of water late in the year that soaked the soil for the run toward harvest probably helped mature the fruit and give it good color, Gude said. And the warm weather has allowed the fruit to remain on the trees, safely, until it's time to handpick the crop.

Gude said watching the projected track of Hurricane Charley last summer made it hard to envision such a good crop in January.

"I was worried when the hurricane was coming through and they were saying it was going to come right up the (U.S.) 41 corridor. I was envisioning devastation and broken trees, and then it didn't happen," Gude said.

"We feel sorry for those people down there, but it would have been horrendous to us. It could have been just as bad for us."

The little fruit with the big, tangy taste celebrates its day in the sun this year on Jan. 29 in downtown Dade City at the annual Kumquat Festival.

Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce director Phyllis Smith said this year's festival continues to grow, with interest coming in from all over the country.

"We have once again had to turn away vendors," she said Tuesday. "Everything is looking really good. I even had someone checking the Farmer's Almanac, and even the weather looks good."

In addition to the street vendors, live entertainment and kumquat-cooking ideas, this year's festival also features a 5K road race to start the day off.

Special this year, TV personality Roger Swain, a former host of the PBS show Victory Garden and the self-proclaimed "champion of the kumquat," will give a lecture at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 27 at the CARES Crescent Enrichment Center, 13906 Fifth St. Admission to the lecture is $10 and is limited to 300.

And Gude's kumquat packing house in St. Joseph will host a free open house from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 28, showcasing not only the methods of cleaning, packing and shipping kumquats, but also kumquat cooking and the new kumquat blossom honey, produced only in St. Joseph from bees set free amid the local groves.

For recipes and more information on kumquats, view the Web site at www.kumquatgrowers.com. And for the latest on the Kumquat Festival, visit www.kumquatfestival.com.

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