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Lime groves make a return to South Florida

Groves of limes, which can be harvested throughout the year, were key to southern Miami-Dade County’s economy before Hurricane Andrew dealt lasting damage in 1992.
Groves of limes, which can be harvested throughout the year, were key to southern Miami-Dade County’s economy before Hurricane Andrew dealt lasting damage in 1992.
Published Dec. 1, 2014

Robert Fishman breaks off a leaf from a lime tree, crushes it in his hand and hands it to a reporter to take in the scent.

The tree is part of a 10-acre lime grove tucked away in Redland in southern Miami-Dade County, the first commercial lime growing operation to sprout in the county in the past few years.

The area had been home to thousands of acres of lime groves, supplying as much as half of the limes consumed in the United States. In 1992, however, Hurricane Andrew wiped out about half of the commercial groves in southern Miami-Dade, which the storm hit hardest.

A few years after the storm, the Florida Department of Agriculture led a campaign to stop the spread of citrus canker, a disease that disfigures citrus trees. The department mandated that infected citrus trees and trees exposed to the disease be destroyed, including lime trees.

"Given how important this industry was for the community, we recognized that this is an opportunity to participate in the renaissance of the lime industry for the Redland community," said Robert Fishman, who works for ThinkLAB Ventures, a holding company for Leonard Abess Jr. and his family's investments.

Since 2008, Abess, chairman and CEO of ThinkLAB Ventures, and his family have been buying up farmland in southern Miami-Dade, focusing in part on avocados, mangoes, and limes.

Limes, which can be harvested throughout the year, were a key spoke in the area's agricultural wheel prior to Hurricane Andrew.

But the season immediately after Andrew, a Category 5 hurricane, the Miami-Dade commercial lime industry packed 228,453 bushels of limes, much fewer than the nearly 1.7 million bushels packed the season before the hurricane struck, said Alan Flinn, director of the Avocado Administrative Committee.

When citrus canker spread to Miami-Dade in 1995, county and state agricultural officials wanted to eradicate the disease before it reached the orange and grapefruit commercial groves, a major economic engine for Florida.

"We were the sacrificial lime at the time," said Mark Philcox, owner of Grove Services of Miami, contracted to manage the Redland lime growing initiative.

Turns out citrus canker isn't as devastating as initially thought.

"The pulp of the lime is fine," said Jonathan Crane, tropical fruit crop specialist at the University of Florida Tropical Research & Education Center. "It might have a scab on the surface of the peel. Sometimes people don't want to buy something that has a blemish."

At the 10-acre Redland commercial operation, the 4,000 trees that have been planted are so far free from canker, as well as from citrus greening, a more damaging disease that has been affecting the orange groves in Central Florida.

It took $60,000 to get the operation off the ground in 2012 and another $20,000 annually to maintain the grove, which includes pest management and nutritional supplements, said Fishman, 29.

It could take up to seven years for a lime tree to become fully mature, said Charles LaPradd, Miami-Dade's agriculture manager.

Because the harvest is low, the lime growing initiative can't reach a full-scale commercial operation.

Philcox and Fishman said they are confident the lime initiative will grow. Fishman said in the coming months the existing 10 acres would yield a larger harvest and another 30 acres are to be planted in the future.