As fall arrives in South Florida we have the pleasure of saying “welcome back” to the thriving citrus business near our Sebastian home, just as our delicious citrus comes into season and our local Hale Groves Retail Store reopens. We miss them when they are closed for the summer, while they await the arrival of those vibrant shades of orange and yellow to fill the groves. We love to go to Hales to buy fresh orange juice, fruit and vegetables on the weekends. It is especially great when you have just finished a walk on the beach on a warm fall day!
There is much to be known about the Florida Citrus business. Citrus trees are not native to Florida. The first citrus was brought to the New World in 1493 by Christopher Columbus. The first orange trees were planted around St. Augustine, Florida, sometime between 1513 and 1565. The first Grapefruit trees arrived much later when French Count, Odet Philippe, planted the first grove of grapefruit near Tampa in 1823.
Florida’s unique sandy soil and subtropical climate have proven to be ideal for growing the seeds that early settlers planted. By the 19th century, citrus trees could be found growing wild throughout many of Florida’s forests, and cultivated orange groves could be found along the St. Johns River and around Tampa.
The colorful history of the Indian River Citrus District goes back to 1807, when Captain Douglas Dummitt, sailing south along the Florida East Coast smelled the fragrance of orange trees and was determined to find these trees and to secure some for his, not yet established, homestead. On the East Bank of the Indian River, north of Titusville, Captain Dummitt and his family settled on what is known today as the “north end” of Merritt Island, Florida.
Immediately after the cabin was built, and his family safely secured, Captain Dummitt left to find the trees with the fragrance he enjoyed so much. The orange trees that he found and planted at his homestead were to be the first-known citrus grove in what is today the “Indian River Citrus District.” Even now some of these original trees may be found at the original site of the Dummitt house.
From that modest beginning, the Indian River Citrus District began to grow and by the turn of the century, many more groves had been established up and down the Indian River area. Citrus grown in this area was transported by boat to northeastern markets. During this time, it was the fastest and most efficient way to move citrus to those markets, which continue today to be one of the largest for “Indian River” fruit.
Over the next 400 years the citrus crop grew and soon after the Civil War Florida’s annual commercial citrus production totaled one million boxes; climbing to more than five million boxes by 1893. With the development of improved means of transportation, new markets were opened in the northeastern United States and demand for the refreshing, healthy benefits of Florida citrus started to expand slowly.
The Great Freeze of 1894-95 ruined many of the groves throughout Florida. As a result, growers began to gradually plant groves farther south. Although Florida’s citrus industry has encountered more freezing temperatures during the 20th century, the industry has continued to thrive as new groves are planted farther south.
The Indian River Citrus District comprises a narrow strip of land on the eastern seaboard of the State of Florida, stretching 200 miles from the Daytona Beach area to West Palm Beach. In fact, it is so narrow that out of the six counties, which make up the district, St. Lucie County is the only one wholly within its boundaries. There are 21 packinghouses, numerous gift fruit shippers, a number of major citrus sales agencies, and several major citrus processing plants located in the district
Today, there are more than 12,000 Florida citrus growers cultivating approximately 74 million citrus trees on more than 569,000 acres of land. More than 76,000 other people also work in the citrus industry or in related businesses. Today Florida citrus is a nearly $9 billion industry producing more oranges than any other region of the world, except Brazil, and leading the world in grapefruit production.
We are so fortunate to live in Florida and to be able to spend our weekends in Sebastian. Driving North to Sebastian is a pleasure and when we start seeing citrus groves out the car window we have yet another reminder that we are in a very special place.
At this point in our lives, the only thing we lack in Florida is a mountain or two to continue to train for our Mt. Kilimanjaro climb – but we can’t have everything right! pkp