A writer returns home to follow the scent of citrus through Florida's coastal groves.
In the spring, the orange blossoms' sweet perfume seemed to follow you everywhere: Driving around with the windows down, it was impossible to ignore, those little white flowers demanding that you draw a long, deep breath.
Where I'm from, we have a few claims to fame — the nation's first wildlife refuge and the world's largest frog-leg festival, for instance — but by far, what we're best known for is citrus. I spent the first two decades of my life in Indian River County, FL, a mostly rural, county halfway up the state's east coast. Manners mean something there, but when it comes to our grapefruit and oranges, we are utterly immodest: They're the best.
The Indian River Citrus District stretches 200 miles from Daytona to West Palm Beach, taking its name from the lagoon that parallels the Atlantic along its length. It is blessed with the perfect combinations of soil and limestone, sunshine and rain, heat and cold to produce some of the sweetest, juiciest, thinnest-skinned citrus in the world. "Other places grow good fruit," says Jeff Schorner, owner of Al's Family Farms in Fort Pierce. "We grow the best."
Recent years, however, have not been kind to the industry that has been the economic, historic and cultural lifeblood of this area for a century. A succession of adversaries, both natural and manmade, have decimated 90,000 acres of Indian River citrus in little more than a decade, forcing many families from a way of life they've known for generations.
Since I moved four years ago, when I return to Indian River the unmistakable aroma of orange blossoms doesn't pervade the springtime air like it used to. And so I returned home recently, partly in search of this misplaced piece of my past, and partly to find out if, despite its struggles, the pride of Indian River still flourished in the Florida sunshine.
At the Indian River Citrus Museum in downtown Vero, grainy photos and rusted tools tell the story of an industry. One that began when a Seminole War captain smelled the orange trees' sweet fragrance and decided to plant some on his Merritt Island homestead in the early 1800s, establishing the first known grove in the Indian River region. By 1930, 'Indian River' had become so synonymous with quality fruit that the Federal Trade Commission had to prevent growers elsewhere from labeling their fruit as such: To claim that coveted title, citrus must be grown in this narrow district, where an underlying layer of coquina limestone provides trees just the right amount of minerals, and the occasional cold snap sweetens fruit to perfection. "You've got to do a dance with the cold," says Doug Bournique, executive vice president of the Indian River Citrus League. "It creates a better-tasting fruit."
Fred Van Ant-werp was born in the heart of the district just a few years after that federal decree, in a wooden house with no electricity along a gravel lane in Wabasso. His father, Frank, first planted citrus on this land in the early 1950s.
"My dad's a true farmer," says Van Antwerp, who, at 73, lives just paces from the spot where he entered this world. "I mean, he truly loved the ground."
In the '60s, Van Antwerp's parents began selling fruit from their front porch, the beginning of what would become Countryside Citrus. Today, in a quaint country store mere steps from that porch, Countryside sells its bounty of oranges, grapefruit and tangerines, plus fresh-squeezed juice that Van Antwerp blends himself. It puts all carton-packed imposters to shame: It's like biting into an orange, but with a combination of sweetness and lingering freshness that's almost unbelievable. The shop's rural surroundings, punctuated with orange trees and the sticky smell of juice, make it easy to imagine what the whole district must have been like when Van Antwerp was a high school student.
"Citrus was king," says Van Antwerp, who's known as Uncle Fred now that his nephew, Rusty Banack, and family have taken over the growing, packing and shipping business. "Used to be you could go down the road, and just everywhere was beautiful citrus, and farmers, and people making their living this way."
A bit down the road, Jeb Hud-son's grandparents purchased Poinsettia Groves, a packinghouse and gift fruit shipper on U.S. Highway 1 in Vero. Hudson, now a wiry father of seven, was just 2 years old when his parents joined the business in 1957. He grew up in the rustic packinghouse, spending his afternoons doing homework and playing in the rectangular wooden field crates while his folks managed the operation. It's a role he's assumed today, at the packing line where you can buy perfect, softball-sized oranges just plucked.
By the mid- to late 1990s, Indian River citrus was a $2 billion industry, sustaining about 20 percent of the workforce, Bour-nique says. Despite three major freezes and an outbreak of citrus canker (a bacteria that can cause tree decline) during the 1980s, the district approached the new millennium stronger than ever, its 1,600-member league growing 230,000 acres of citrus for 43 district packinghouses.
Then, the hard times set in.
I point my car north, crossing the St. Sebastian River into Brevard County, where U.S. 1 parallels the Indian River for mile after mile of sparkling water, swaying cabbage palms and soaring ospreys. Forty-five minutes pass before I see the first sign that citrus is or ever was a part of life here, taking the shape of a smattering of old orange trees standing like ghosts on the side of the road.
Frank Sullivan, the third-generation owner of Sullivan Victory Groves, a storefront fruit shipper based in Rockledge, recalls when a dozen citrus stands lined this same route, and plenty of groves, too. Sullivan's wife, Jeanette, doesn't need her eyes to detect the change that's taken place, she misses the scent of citrus as well.
It's not just Merritt Island: Throughout the district, citrus acreage has fallen 40 percent since the late 1990s and membership in the growers' league has dropped by half. So, what happened?
In the past dozen years, a perfect storm took shape: First came widespread canker outbreaks and subsequent attempts to eradicate it by ripping out infected groves. Then in 2004, three major hurricanes crisscrossed the state's citrus regions, while at the same time, developers gobbled up groveland in the housing boom, paying astronomical amounts with their sights on new subdivisions. Finally, in 2005, Florida confirmed its first case of an exotic tree-killing disease that has since spread to all of its citrus-growing counties. The pressures forced many longtime citrus families to close up shop.
"We have contracted, and it's been painful," Bournique says. "These are all local, dirt-under-the-fingernails kind of people."
I'm on a tour of the packinghouse at Al's Family Farms, a 1930s-era wooden structure modeled after a classic red barn, on a cool, sunny Florida morning. I bite into a slice of vibrant orange honeybell, and a trickle of juice dribbles down my chin, tangy and sweet. It's so good it makes me wonder, how could the future not be bright for Indian River citrus?
Fred Van Antwerp agrees. "I look for it to come back," he tells me. "It's such a good product, I can't see it going away forever."
Though it's been a painful decade, there are signs of life all around. A steady stream of semi trucks loaded with oranges rumbles by on the two-lane road in front of Al's. At Hale Groves, the roadside shop in Wabasso that I've been visiting all my life, the wooden bins once again overflow with fruit; after being shuttered for two years, Hale reopened under new ownership in 2007.
"People still talk about when it was closed, how disappointed they were," says Kristin DiPen-tima, manager of the store, which is located inside an old packinghouse made cozy with wooden timbers and white Christmas lights, and which is still partly surrounded by perfect rows of citrus trees laden with fruit. "I think this store in particular is a part of people's history." She's talking about people like me, and I can't resist: I fill a $5 brown paper bag with tangerines and honeybells before I leave.
Across town, young folks like 33-year-old Louis Schacht of Schacht Groves are growing, packing and shipping their family legacies, carrying on what his father, Henry, calls "the nicest way of life." And up in Brevard County, one of the hardest hit, holdouts like Jim and Larry Harvey are sustaining Harvey's Groves, begun in 1926 by their great-aunt and -uncle.
Like all of the remaining roadside stands, Harvey's airy, white-washed store overlooking the Indian River is an outpost from a different Florida, where bags of citrus share shelf space with an array of local jellies, honeys and tropical kitsch. But they're not stuck in the past: Harvey's and the other citrus success stories have expanded to the internet to reach a growing percentage of customers purchasing gift fruit online.
"We're trying to keep up with the times, and so far it's going good," Jim Harvey says. "I can see us being here at least another 10 or 15 years. At least."
Across the district, membership in the citrus league has stabilized, and at research centers around the state, scientists are doggedly searching for solutions to citrus canker. And perhaps most encouraging, the five- or six-year lull when farmers didn't replace the trees they had lost seems to have ended.
"We are replanting new trees," says Cheryl Roseland of Countryside, "and crossing our fingers."
The sun is starting to set, its last rays setting aflame the golden oranges sagging from a small patch of trees along the gravel road at Countryside. I meander up one row and down another, stopping to inhale the cool winter air, and then I smell it. My brain must be playing tricks, I think, it's too early for blossoms. Yet there it is again, that sweet, wild aroma I'd know anywhere.
Behold, just a few feet away, a spray of orange blossoms decorates the end of a twig, brimming with the promise of the fruit they will become, and the hope that years from now, Indian River kids will still know that sweet perfume of spring.
IF YOU GO
AL'S FAMILY FARMS
2001 N Kings Highway, Ft Pierce; 800-544-3366; www.alsfamilyfarms.com
*retail shop open Mon-Fri 9-6, Sat 9-5; packinghouse tours 10:30 Tuesdays - Thursdays through Easter
6325 81st St, Vero Beach; 888-550-5745; www.countrysidecitrus.com
*retail shop open Mon-Sat 9-5
9250 U.S. Highway 1, Wabasso; 800-562-4502; www.halegroves.com
*retail shop open Mon-Sat 8-6, Sun 10-4
3700 S. U.S. Highway 1, Rockledge; 800-327-9312; www.harveysgroves.com
*retail shop open Mon-Sat 8-5:30, Sun 9-5
INDIAN RIVER CITRUS MUSEUM
2140 14th Ave., Vero Beach; 772-770-2263; www.veroheritage.org/CitrusMuseum.html
*open Tues-Fri 10-4
1481 U.S. Highway 1, Vero Beach 772-562-3356; www.poinsettiagroves.com
*retail shop open Mon-Fri 8-5, Sat 8-12; packinghouse tours by request
SULLIVAN VICTORY GROVES
988 U.S. Highway 1, Rockledge; 800-672-6431; www.sullivancitrus.com