1. Opinion

Florida's endangered orange (w/video)

Published Mar. 7, 2014

A long line of muses has chronicled the orange's journey over the centuries from China to India, Persia to Spain, and Hispaniola to Florida. The orange has stirred the imaginations of Franciscan friars, country fiddlers and multinational conglomerates. More than anything else, Florida's signature fruit has defined the Sunshine State and its promise as the New Mediterranean.

But today the orange is in peril. An incurable disease called "citrus greening" has swept through Florida, affecting every orange-producing county. This crisis has been called "the most serious threat in (citrus) history," "a looming disaster many Floridians do not know about," and "an existential threat."

The disease, also known as Yellow Dragon because it was first detected in China, looms larger than any previous threat to the industry — including devastating hurricanes, the sprawl of development across agricultural land and the expensive war of attrition to eradicate citrus canker. After marauding through orange groves in China and Brazil, the disease, a bacterium spread by a tiny flying insect called a psyllid, appeared in Florida in 2005. Oranges become misshapen and bitter — and eventually the affected trees die.

But Florida's grove owners are resilient. They have battled the Mediterranean fruit fly and killer freezes and weathered the economic effects of wars and depressions. Still, the present challenge is so serious that scientists and state officials have debated the ethics and efficacy of genetic modification, of altering the orange's DNA in order to save it.

The orange is so iconic and entwined in the Florida dream that this agricultural product is considered part of the "natural" landscape. After all, Florida boasts an Orange County and Citrus County, and towns named Orange City, Orange Park and Orange Springs. The orange blossom is Florida's official state flower, the orange the official state fruit, and since 1998 an orange has served as the emblem on state license plates. State law even protects oranges from defamation and bans the shipment of "green fruit."

The story of the orange spans the history of Florida. In colonial St. Augustine, successive generations of Spanish, Minorcan and British settlers planted orange trees in such abundance that when vessels entered the harbor in the spring, the crews identified the city's location by the fragrance of orange blossoms wafting from grove to bay.

In 1835, a devastating freeze scoured Florida, destroying the beloved citrus groves of St. Augustine. "Never was a place so desolate," reminisced a local judge. In the decades that followed, orange groves sprang up along the Indian and St. Johns rivers and in the Golden Triangle area comprising the towns of Mount Dora, Eustis and Tavares.

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Mid 19th-century growers faced many obstacles, most significantly, distance. Steamboats ferried crates of oranges from Leesburg, Palatka and Jacksonville, but much of the harvest spoiled before reaching eager consumers. In the late 19th century, revolutions in transportation helped bridge country and city, state and nation, nation and world. Florida citrus rode the rails to new heights and new markets, its cedar crates and labels advertising the Sunshine State as a winter paradise.

Growers helped create and popularize new markets for a product most Americans had never sampled. For generations to come, people across the country first encountered Florida by tasting an orange. If cotton was king of the Old South, the orange became the endearing and enduring symbol of Florida.

Florida was touted as a poor man's paradise. In acreage so small it seemed laughable in the Midwest, a manicured 10-acre orange grove in DeLeon Springs or Dunedin imagined Jeffersonian republicanism and democratic romanticism. Beginning in the Gilded Age of the 1870s and cresting in the 1920s, orange fever brought trainloads and carloads of citizens eager to become gentleman grove owners.

Entire cities — Temple Terrace and Howey-in-the-Hills — incorporated town and grove. A dazzling variety of oranges took root in Florida, their names suggesting their romantic lineage: Homosassa, Hamlin, Temple, Murcott, Lue Gim Gong, Parson Brown, Sanford Bloods, Mediterranean Sweet and Maltese Oval. To sell the fruit, roadside fruit stands and packinghouses proliferated along the orange belt, offering motorists sweet bliss and a free glass of orange juice.

Many small growers eventually quit, the victims of overproduction, freezes and fierce competition. A handful emerged triumphant — like Philip "Doc" Phillips, Antonio Rossi and Ben Hill Griffin. But in a story all too familiar, large corporations began swallowing Florida's baronial estates as well its family groves. Beginning in the 1940s, corporations bet wildly and successfully on Florida grove land. Just as Phillips and Griffin personified the gritty individualism of the men who built dynasties one grove at a time, Consolidated Citrus LP, Coca-Cola and Cutrale Juices U.S.A. came to signify a new corporate presence, more multinational and multiconglomerate than personal and local.

Historic freezes, new hybrids and the relentless development of grove land have pushed Florida's orange belt southward over the years. In 1950, the orange belt buckled together the state's leading citrus counties, which stretched across Central Florida: Orange, Polk, and Lake. Orange County pointed with pride to its 80,000-plus acres of citrus. Today, nearly 65 years later, the belt has drooped southward: Polk, St. Lucie, Indian River, DeSoto, Hardee, Highlands, Hendry and Collier counties now have emerged as citrus leaders. Orange County has slipped to 19th place. Pinellas County, which devoted 15,000 acres of land to citrus cultivation in the 1950s, now has no commercial groves.

In January 1981, Florida shivered as the first of the decade's Alberta Clippers plunged statewide temperatures well below freezing. By the end of the decade, three more disastrous freezes had ravaged Florida's groves, killing 90 percent of Lake County's orange trees. The beneficiaries of this disaster were Florida real estate developers and Brazil. This marked a milestone in citrus history: Brazil replaced Florida as the world's leading orange producer. Astonishingly, 100,000 acres of Lake County citrus land was transformed into housing tracts, shopping centers and nurseries. An Orlando banker summarized the opportunity: "We stopped picking oranges and started picking tourists."

From the late 1940s onward, advertising songs and jingles about the orange, fresh from the crate and frozen concentrate out of the can, captivated Americans: "Breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine!" "Come to the Florida Sunshine Tree!" and "Orange juice — It's not just for breakfast anymore."

Orange juice became an integral part of the standard breakfast, along with bacon and eggs and toast. But in recent years, more and more Americans are beginning their days without a glass of orange juice. OJ's greatest threat may not even be citrus greening, but rather changing tastes.

Illustrating this point, a journalist recently posed the question: "Just when did orange juice — loaded with nutrients from vitamin C to folic acid — become the drink from hell?" In truth, OJ is brimming not only with vitamin C but carbohydrates, the arch villain of South Beach dieters and concerned pediatricians. Orange juice, moreover, holds little mystique with young Americans who typically skip breakfast, preferring a carbonated soda, vitamin-enhanced water, or an espresso doppio.

Unfolding over six centuries, the story of Florida citrus is a complicated tale involving great contrasts and trajectories: old groves and new perils, small family farms and global competition, citrus barons whose names emblazon athletic fields, and the largely forgotten men and women who pruned, picked and packed the oranges.

Threatened and squeezed by developers, foreign competition, an incurable disease, global warming, and hard freezes, the future of the orange in Florida is uncertain. But amidst tumult and change, one thing remains certain: a glass of freshly squeezed Florida orange juice is pure elixir, the proper drink for a dream state.

Gary R. Mormino, scholar in residence for the Florida Humanities Council, is the Frank E. Duckwall professor emeritus of history at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where he co-founded the Florida Studies Program.


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