All About the Florida Citrus Industry

By the end of ten years of experience with a moderate degree of citrus control, the Florida growers were ready for more control. The legislature of 1935, acting upon the demand of the growers themselves, enacted laws creating a Citrus Commission, with power to enforce compulsory inspection and grading of all oranges, grapefruit and tangerines offered for shipment, to set up new and better standards for maturity tests, the bonding and licensing of all handlers of citrus fruit, the regulation of shippers’ charges, the guaranteeing of growers’ costs under certain stipulated conditions, the registration of brands or marks and the regulation of the use of coloring material.

On about two out of every three Florida oranges the buyer will see, stamped in capital letters, the words: “Color added.” That does not mean that there has been an attempt to palm off unripe fruit for ripe fruit by painting it yellow. It means that under state and Federal laws it is permissible to “doll up” those varieties of oranges whose skins do not naturally take on, even when fully ripe, the bright yellow color which the California oranges and their advertising campaign have educated the public to regard as the sign of a perfect orange. California, in fact, adopted this practice of artificial coloring to bring its oranges up to a uniform standard of appearance before Florida ever tried it, and it still colors its fruit by the use of ethylene gas. Because of a peculiarity in the Federal law fruit colored with ethylene gas does not have to be stamped “color added.” State inspectors see to it that only fully mature Florida oranges are subjected to coloring by the use of harmless dyes approved by the Federal Food and Drug Bureau. About 12,000,000 of the 20,000,000 boxes of oranges shipped in the 1936-37 season were so colored. Florida “color-added” oranges must pass a higher maturity test than is required for any other oranges, and they must also pass a special juice test.

Probably the most important provision of the Citrus Commission Act of 1935, next to the elevation and maintenance of standards, was the levying of an assessment on every box of citrus fruit shipped, to established a fund for an advertising program. One cent a box on oranges, three cents on grapefruit and five cents on tangerines, yielded an advertising fund from the 1936-37 season’s shipments, of the order of $500,000. The effect of the advertising campaign initiated by the use of this fund in the shipping season of 1935-36 is largely responsible, Florida believes, for the increased demand and wider acceptance of Florida oranges and grapefruit by the consuming public, and for a very considerable extension of the market for tangerines, which had previously been confined mainly to the larger cities.

So beneficial did a single season’s experience prove the operations of the Citrus Commission to be that the 1937 legislature not only reenacted the law but added amendments de signed to remedy defects which had developed in practice, notably one increasing the minimum bond for citrus handlers, a provision designed to eliminate irresponsible commission men, and another stepping up the maturity standards for grapefruit and color-added oranges.

The Florida Citrus Commission maintains headquarters at Lakeland, in Polk County, where are grown nearly a third of all Florida oranges and grapefruit. Headquarters of the Citrus Inspection Bureau are at Winter Haven. At the peak of the shipping season nearly 300 inspectors are engaged in testing fruit for maturity, and in certifying the grade and pack of each shipment. The citrus belt is divided into 15 inspection districts, each with its district supervisor and corps of inspectors, who number 226 for the entire state. In each district there are from 13 to 45 citrus packing houses, 325 in all, with about 400 bonded shippers handling the pack. Supervisors and inspectors are picked from men experienced in citrus handling and familiar with packing house operations. Before appointment every candidate for one of these jobs is required to attend a training school maintained by the Bureau and to pass an examination to demonstrate his thorough understanding of the citrus law and the Commission’s regulations.

Besides the inspection in the field and at the packing houses, the state maintains 26 road guards. Their duty is to check up on every motor-truck passing along the highways with a load of citrus fruit and see that it carries proper papers authorizing the transportation of the load to a point outside the state. Every shipment, by rail, water or truck, must be accompanied by a state certificate that its contents have been inspected, graded and labeled in accordance with the Commission’s regulations and the law, that the carrier is duly licensed and bonded and has been authorized to transport this particular shipment, for which a manifest has been filed. Unless armed with the necessary permits, the trucker who attempts to carry oranges outside of the state finds himself in trouble at the border with Federal inspectors from the U. S. Department of Agriculture, even if he has succeeded in slipping by the Commission’s own highway patrol.

Very few “bootleg” oranges get out of Florida, but more than 3,000,000 boxes of the 1936-37 crop of oranges and grapefruit went by truck to 35 states and the District of Colum bia and even to Canada, which took 400 boxes of Florida tangerines, 800 boxes of oranges and 3,600 boxes of grapefruit by the highway route. Among the most frequent sights seen along Florida highways are signs and fingerboards inviting truckers to load up at nearby groves or packing houses. Most of the trucks which take Florida fruit and produce north carry it as return loads after delivering northern merchandise into the state.

These truckers are principally free-lance, driver-owned cars which operate all over the South, picking up loads of fruit and vegetables where they can get them and moving north ward as the crop seasons move. Many of them, however, are owned or chartered by national chain store systems, who utilize them to bring merchandise from northern factories and warehouses and to carry back for distribution through their northern stores the Florida citrus, particularly grapefruit. Trucks in the 1936-37 season carried Florida grapefruit as far west as Oklahoma.

One problem confronting Florida citrus growers every season, which neither legislation nor regulation short of arbitrary crop restrictions could control, was the problem created year after year by the presence or anticipation of a surplus production beyond the capacity of the market to absorb. These actual or anticipated surpluses, recurring at frequent intervals from season to season, had been for years an important factor in preventing anything like stabilization of prices and orderly marketing. Mere expectation of a bumper crop inevitably depressed prices and led to frantic dumping of fruit on the market for whatever it would bring, while the existence of an actual surplus spelled loss in the absence of any practical method of carrying the surplus over from one season to the next. Moreover, citrus fruit being a perishable crop which depreciates or spoils if exposed too long to the high temperature of Florida’s climate, it was the necessary practise to rush the entire crop to market as soon as the fruit was picked, thus causing a succession of market gluts alternating with shortages, with the natural result of constantly fluctuating prices as the early crops, the middle-season pick and the late spring fruit followed each other.

These difficulties confronting Florida citrus growers have been so nearly overcome that it is not going too far into the realm of prophecy to predict that by 1940 they will have been entirely eliminated.

Three elements have combined to put the citrus industry of Florida on a stable economic basis. Perhaps the most important and far-reaching of these, certainly the one which seemed the most unlikely in 1925, is the invention, development and successful application of methods and processes for canning grapefruit pulp, grapefruit juice and orange juice so effectively that it will keep in the tins, at normal temperatures, so unchanged in flavor as to meet and stimulate a wide-spread popular demand for citrus products outside of the fresh citrus season.

Orange growers, chemists and cannery experts had been working for years on the problem of how to put up orange juice in tins so that it would not discolor or turn sour without being loaded with artificial preservatives which affected its taste. In 1925 an experimental cannery putting up grapefruit hearts was set up in Florida and met with some success, although it operated on the theory that its function was not so much to carry over surplus fruit from season to season as to utilize the culls, which for any reason were unfit for shipment as fresh fruit. It was not until 1932 that the researches of several independent experimenters finally demonstrated the practicality of the citrus canning project, and market tests indicated that the consuming public would buy canned citrus and citrus juice when it could not get the fresh fruit, provided the product was maintained at a uniform standard of the highest quality.

Immediately citrus canning plants, representing investments of millions of dollars, began to be set up in Florida. At the beginning of 1937-38 citrus season there were forty-three such plants in full commercial operation, constituting a new and highly important industry for the state, as well as providing an important stabilizer of market prices. These canning establishments, many of which are also equipped for the canning of Florida vegetables, buy the surplus grapefruit and oranges from fresh fruit shippers or direct from the growers at prices which usually advance steadily from the period of peak production in December, to the end of the season, in June.

Many Florida growers had become accustomed, in bumper crop years, to taking a loss on their December shipments, or at least realizing only a few pennies a box after deducting pack ing, shipping and transportation costs and brokers’ commission. The canneries took off their hands all they were able to deliver in December, 1936, at from twenty-five to thirty cents a box. That price, low as it appears to be, was in effect net profit to the grower for a product from which he might well have obtained no revenue at all in the glutted Christmas-time market; and by withdrawing from that market a part of the crop, better prices were obtained for the proportion that was actually shipped. As the season progressed the cannery price for grapefruit increased from month to month until by April, 1937, it had reached $1.00 a box.

The total pack of Florida citrus products by the canneries of the entire state in the 1936-37 season was 7,475,128 cases of two dozen standard cans to a case. Nearly 3,500,000 cases of this pack consisted of grapefruit segments; more than 3,000,000 cases were grapefruit juice and another 300,000odd cases were broken segments of grapefruit.

The preponderance of grapefruit over oranges in the citrus canning industry is accounted for, in part, by the fact that production of grapefruit in Florida has increased in recent years faster than the marketing facilities and demands have increased, thus tending to create a surplus of greater proportions than in the case of oranges. Another and highly important reason is that the canning of grapefruit and grapefruit juice has been more successful in the palatability and consumer-acceptance of the canned product than in the case of orange juice. It is a comparatively simple process to can grapefruit so that the flavor of the tinned product is indistinguishable from that of the fresh fruit. The canning of orange juice has not yet reached that stage of perfection; even an uncritical palate usually is able to tell the difference between canned and fresh orange juice. However, several of the more progressive canners maintain staffs of research chemists who are steadily evolving improvements in processing methods, cooperating with the Federal Citrus Products Research Laboratory at Winter Haven, which was established in 1932 under the direction of Dr. Henry G. Knight, chief of the United States Bureau of Chemistry and Soils.