OUR CITRUS HISTORY
BY PAUL J. DRISCOLL
The local crop we call Indian River citrus is known throughout the world, but surprisingly few people on the Treasure Coast can explain what the term means.
Many think it refers to citrus grown only in Indian River County. But citrus with the Indian River label is grown in several Treasure Coast counties in a narrow strip of land stretching nearly 200 miles from Daytona Beach to West Palm Beach. The federally designated region, officially termed the Indian River District, is so narrow that St. Lucie is the only one of its six counties to lie wholly within its boundaries. The eastern half of Indian River County is included, but only a small strip of eastern Volusia, a strip of eastern Brevard, the eastern half of Martin and the northeast corner of Palm Beach counties.
The district’s major crop is not native to the Americas but was brought here by Columbus on his second voyage. After leaving Spain he stopped at the Canary Island of Gomera, where he collected the seeds of various agricultural crops, particularly citrus, including lemons, sweet and sour oranges, and citrons. He carried the seeds to the island of Hispaniola at what is now the nation of Haiti, arriving on November 22, 1493, and eventually seeing to it that orchards were planted.
There is evidence that orange seeds were later planted in Central America during July of 1518.
We know from Spanish writings that oranges were being produced in abundance at St. Augustine in 1579. It seems likely that they were introduced about the year of the city’s founding in 1565. For the next two centuries, settlers arriving in Florida found wild groves of both sour and sweet oranges in various corners of the state, with Native Americans apparently planting them in clumps similar to today’s orange groves. They were usually near lakes and rivers, but many have been found in undisturbed hammocks along the Treasure Coast.
Jesse Fish, a transplanted New Yorker, planted a commercial orange grove on Anastasia Island near St. Augustine in 1763. He made one shipment to England in 1776 but shipments were suspended because of the Revolutionary War.
The development of a commercial citrus industry in north-central Florida was begun after Spain ceded the territory to the United States in 1821. But a freeze on Feb. 9, 1835, killed most of the trees except for those along the east coast. This began a southward movement of the citrus industry that continues today.
INDIAN RIVER’S FIRST
The first grove in the Indian River District was planted sometime after 1825 by Captain Douglas Dummett or Dummitt, in what is now Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which joins the Kennedy Space Center on its north side. Dummett’s grove is thought to be the first Florida grove planted using budded trees. Bud wood from sweet orange trees in New Smyrna, owned by a Mr. Jones, was grafted to wild sour orange trees about three feet above ground. Dummett’s father had earlier purchased a sugar plantation on which these wild sour orange trees grew. The grove, on a narrow strip of land between the Indian River and Mosquito Lagoon, was protected from freezes by the heat stored in the large bodies of water on both sides of it. This, along with the cold-hardy sour orange root stock, helped it survive the 1835 freeze. Dummett’s grove was the bud wood source for many later plantings in the Indian River District.
Because so much of the land within the Indian River District is low and wet, the early groves were planted where natural drainage was available, typically along creeks such as 10 Mile Creek in St. Lucie County. Also planted were high hammock areas in all the district counties and the well-drained sandy soils of the barrier islands along Indian River and Brevard counties.
One island that became famous was Orchid Island in present-day Indian River County. It was named by Captain Frank Forster, the first postmaster, because of all the wild orchids growing there. Captain Forster planted the first commercial grove in Indian River County. A. B. Michael planted his groves on the island using bud wood from the Dummett grove.
State Sen. H. S. Williams was one of the first and largest citrus growers in Brevard County. The 1894-95 freezes killed his groves, but his son, E. S. Williams, heard that citrus trees around the pioneers’ homes in St. Lucie County had survived. He bought the old Bell homestead in St. Lucie County and set about clearing the land. The large orange grove he planted was about a half-mile west of what is now the Fort Pierce Turnpike and south of Okeechobee Road. E.S. Williams was the father of Fort Pierce aerial applicator Harold Williams.
After all of the best-drained locations were planted, growers in the early 1900s started using a “bedding system” to efficiently drain excess water and raise the tree roots as high as possible above the shallow water table. The first beds were called “single beds” because only one row of trees was planted on them. They were constructed by using a plow pulled by mules to throw the soil toward the center of the bed. This required multiple trips to obtain the desired height. When tractors became available in the early 1920s they were used to pull a grader blade mounted on a frame. E.S. Williams used one of these for some of his groves.
When the industry moved into poorly drained soils the single bed did not perform well. In the 1940s, Bob Edsal of Vero Beach recognized that something needed to be done to increase the rooting area available to the tree. He started building double beds that were wider and higher than the old single beds. Edsal is recognized in the citrus industry as “the father of the double bed.” His family is still in the citrus business in the Indian River District today.
THE TASTE DIFFERENCE
Several reasons have historically been given for the superior taste of Indian River citrus. The main reason is the sour orange rootstock, which produces tastier fruit. Indian River fruit is better because it has more fruit solids, which are mostly sugars, which gives it more body. This gives a higher ratio of solids to citric acid, a main factor in evaluating taste. Sour orange rootstock not only produces a better quality fruit but it is resistant to a fungus disease called foot rot, which is prevalent in the low, wet soils common in the Indian River District. Sour orange rootstock was used until recent years when a virus disease called Tristeza became widespread and it is no longer used.
The Indian River Citrus League attributes the sweeter taste to a combination of factors. Trees in the district are located above the Anastaia formation, composed of coquina limestone, which the root system of the citrus trees tap for essential minerals and nutrients during their growing cycle. Most importantly, according to the league, the district’s annual rainfall of about 52 inches per year – or one inch per week – ensures the production of high quality citrus with a thin skin and high sugar content.
Because of its superior quality, demand for Indian River citrus increased in the 1920s. To distinguish their fruit, growers began using the term “Indian River” for marketing. Since Indian River fruit was bringing higher prices, growers in other parts of the state began to use the term too.
Concerned over the misuse of the name, several influential growers along the Indian River, led by the late Will Fee of Fort Pierce, went up and down the region urging growers to join in a movement to stop this infringement.
Finally, in 1930, the Federal Trade Commission issued a “cease and desist” order prohibiting the use of “Indian River” on citrus not grown in the Indian River District. Afterward, growers took the preliminary steps toward the formation of the Indian River Citrus League. The boundary of the district was defined by following the outline of water sheds and soil types.
To get financial support for the group, Fee signed up 95 percent of the district’s shippers to pay a fee for each loaded railroad car. The league was formally organized in 1931, with Fee acting as secretary and doing most of the legwork.
The league was the first such growers’ organization in the state and was the forerunner of the statewide Florida Citrus Mutual. For his efforts in promoting Indian River citrus, Will Fee was inducted into the Citrus Hall of Fame in 1970.
Although some grapefruit was planted in the district in the early years, most of the citrus shipped was early, midseason, and late oranges, which kept the packing houses busy for about eight months. After the development of orange juice concentrate, however, Indian River oranges brought higher prices for that use than for fresh oranges.
With so many oranges going to the concentrate plants, the District’s packinghouses needed fruit to handle. More grapefruit were planted and eventually gained more worldwide fame than the oranges. The grapefruit grown in the warm humid climate of the Indian River tastes better than those grown in the competing dry desert areas of the world like California, Israel, South Africa, and Turkey. Because of that, marketing efforts were successful in both Europe and Asia, especially Japan.
Ironically, a freeze on Dec. 13, 1962, gave the Indian River citrus district another boost. While the freeze caused extensive damage to trees and fruit in the state’s north-central counties, the Indian River area was unaffected. To replace the large acreage killed in the north, growers began planting trees in counties where there had been no damage. This continued until 1994, when the Indian River District acreage peaked at 202,191 tree acres. This is the actual acres in trees and the service acres for roads, canals, and barns are not included. By 2008 the District tree acres had declined to 95,856 acres.
In 1994, 105,448 tree acres of St. Lucie County’s 377,000 acres were planted in citrus. The state’s production peaked in the 1979-80 season, a year that saw the Indian River District produce 53,893,000 boxes.
Because of several Central Florida freezes, Indian River prices remained high through the 1980s, but orange prices began to decline in the early 1990s. Oranges had been competing in a global concentrate juice market in which production had increased so much that supply was greater than demand. During the same years the state’s grapefruit production increased, mainly in the Indian River District, and again supply was greater than demand.
The district’s grapefruit market fell victim to two unrelated factors: cholesterol and development.
With the introduction of statins for reduction of blood cholesterol, older adults began to eat less grapefruit. The seniors liked the taste, but their doctors were telling them to avoid grapefruit when they took statins.
The fruit actually increased the effectiveness of statins by blocking an enzyme that breaks them down, but the industry’s attempts to use that fact to its advantage was a failure. Enzyme levels vary from person to person, making it impossible to create a workable recommendation.
In the middle 1990s grapefruit prices fell so low that for several years growers left large numbers of them on the trees rather than pay to pick them.
This started a downward trend in acreage that was accelerated when the state and federal governments decided to give up on eradicating citrus canker, a disease that was being spread across the state by hurricanes. Since grapefruit is the most susceptible citrus variety to canker it suffered large acreage losses.
Meanwhile, citrus growers whose groves were close to Treasure Coast population centers discovered they could make far more money by selling to developers.
St. Lucie County is the largest citrus producing county in the Indian River District. Its hard-pressed growers have pushed up and burned many acres of trees plus abandoning 25,285 acres of groves, the most of any county in the state. This leaves 48,073 citrus-producing acres in the county according to the January 2008 tree census. Acreage in Indian River County, the second-largest producer in the district, has dropped from a high of 69,240 tree acres in 1994 to 39,013 tree acres in 2008, plus another 13,781 abandoned acres. All the other counties in the Indian River District have seen similar reductions.
About the author
Paul J. Driscoll is a Fort Pierce native with bachelor and master’s degrees in citrus from the University of Florida. A retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, he has owned and managed groves since 1955.
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