DADE CITY — It’s not what it once was, but Greg Gude is cautiously optimistic as he looks over the groves in back of the Kumquat Growers packing house after a morning spent packing fruit.
“It’s greatly improved out there,” said Gude. “Three years ago, there were no trees out there.”
That’s good news for those planning to gobble up a slice of kumquat pie at the annual Kumquat Festival, held Jan. 24 in downtown Dade City.
For Gude, it’s been a shaky story of rebuilding in what he thought would be his easy retirement years.
First came the freeze that wiped out about 80 percent of the fruit-bearing trees. Then the root rot. Add to that the citrus greening, a disease spread by an insect called the Asian citrus psyllid, which has devastated groves throughout Florida.
Kumquat Growers, Inc., a longtime operation owned and operated by the Gude and Neuhofer families, took a big hit.
“Close to 6,000 trees were destroyed here in Pasco County,” Gude said. “We went from (harvesting) 18,000 bushels, to 15,000 bushels, to 12,000 bushels, to 5,000 bushels, to nothing."
The tiny citrus fruit, which can be used in various recipes or simply eaten as a grape, peel and all, had long been an economic boon locally, Gude said.
The fruit is a symbol for good fortune and is popular for Chinese New Year celebrations. For years, Kumquat Growers shipped much of its harvest throughout the country. There was more than enough to supply the annual Kumquat Festival where jams, jellies, salsas and a cold slice of kumquat pie are the main attractions for thousands of attendees. It also provided seasonal income for harvesters, packing house workers and those helping out in the gift shop.
A couple of years ago, Gude shut down the commercial shipments, and fresh fruit was sparse for the festival. Gude said he’s down to two or three harvesters.
“It’s been a rough year, and it’s going to be a rough few more,” he said.
Even so, things look promising.
“We were able to ship some last year," Gude said. “This year, we doubled that.
“We’re still experimenting on what’s the best way to grow kumquats. What’s the best root stock, the different methods of planting. Different methods of feeding the trees.”
Local donations paid for netting to protect some of the newly planted trees.
“We’ve got some pretty blocks of kumquats, but they’re all under 5 years old,” he said, before reflecting on days gone by, when the fields were flush and the packing house didn’t look so worn down.
“Citrus-style packing houses like these were a dime a dozen, but most of them have folded up. The groves have been replaced by pasture land," Gude said, shaking his head. "The world is changing.”
IF YOU GO:
- The annual Kumquat Festival will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Jan. 25 in historic downtown Dade City. The “old Florida” themed event features arts, crafts, food, vendors, a car show, and “down-home” entertainment. There is a kids corral and health fair. Free admission, free parking at city lots, free shuttles into downtown and free entertainment at the courthouse.
- Can’t make the festival? The Kumquat Growers open house will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Jan. 23-24 at 31647 Gude Road, Dade City. Features educational talks, tours, demonstrations and live music. (352) 588-0544.