Florida Citrus Industry

The orange and grapefruit are the backbone of Florida’s agriculture. Florida has been growing oranges for close on to four centuries, ever since the early days of the Spanish occupation. But it was not until after Florida had come through the long period of social and economic instability which characterized its turbulent history down to the end of the war between the states, three hundred years after its conquest by the Spaniards, that the rest of the country found Florida oranges available.

The orange, prior to 1870, was a rare, highly prized and expensive luxury which few residents of the regions north of 30 degrees latitude had ever seen, much less tasted. New York and Boston imported a few oranges for Christmas delicacies from Spain and North Africa, and occasionally an adventurous traveler returning from Florida would bring a few oranges north with him, as a rare treat for his family and friends. The grapefruit, in that pre-General Grant era, was practically unknown in the North, almost unknown in Florida, where it was introduced from the West Indies probably some time around 1870, and was popularly known as the shaddock, in more polite circles by the classier name of pomelo. How and when the name grapefruit, obviously derived from the fact that it grows on its tree in clusters somewhat faintly resembling bunches of grapes, became fastened upon this delicious fruit nobody knows. And nobody could have dreamed, in 1870, that in 1937 more than 62,000 railway carloads, 30,000,000 boxes, of Florida oranges, grapefruit, tangerines and limes would be shipped out of Florida and distributed to consumers in all but four of the states of the Union. California, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona were the only places in the United States which did not buy any. The rest of the country paid Florida close to $100,000,000 for the product of her 340,000 acres of citrus groves. Small wonder that Florida celebrated the semi-centennial of its state Horticultural Society with a pageant, “Golden Harvest,” at Ocala in the Spring of 1937!

Citrus is by all odds the most important source of income in Florida, next to tourists. Oranges predominate by about two to one over grapefruit.

While it costs up to $400 an acre to cultivate, irrigate, fertilize, harvest, pack and ship the citrus fruit crop, the general experience is that a net average profit of $200 or a little more per acre can be realized from both oranges and grapefruit, averaging the cash returns over a period of years.

It may cost anywhere from $600 to $1200 an acre to buy and clear a good piece of citrus land, set out the grove and develop it to the point where income begins-four years in the case of grapefruit, five years for oranges-and the full yield is not likely to be reached before the tenth year. But unless all Florida experiences such a general freeze as almost ruined the youthful citrus industry in the Winter of 1894-95 the growing of oranges and grapefruit seems to offer about as profitable an investment as any operation which depends upon the vagaries of the weather can be. At least, a great many thousand people who have, among them, been intelligent enough or lucky enough to accumulate some $300,000,000, have invested that huge sum in Florida orange groves and are taking down an annual net income, over any five-year average, of 20 percent or more on their investment.

When it is considered that probably half or more of these investors in Florida orange and grapefruit groves spend little or no time personally in Florida and do not have to master the technique nor engage in the drudgery which successful farming anywhere in the North calls for, it is submitted that the risk of an occasional crop loss from frost is not too hazardous in view of the profits in good years.

Florida is learning from California, where frost is a far more imminent menace, ways of keeping its groves warm on the rare occasions when the thermometer drops toward the danger point of 28 degrees. It does not take much of a fire to raise the temperature of an orange grove several degrees. Along the rows of most citrus groves one notes piles of cordwood ready to be fired; pine is a cheaper fuel even than oil in Florida.

Although Florida has not had a killing frost of any wide extent since 1931-32, experiments have been made with airplane protection against frost, the theory being that the circu lation of air immediately above the trees, by the propellers of a plane flying low, will keep a freezing frost from forming on the foliage and fruit. Not enough practical experience with this method has been reported to enable anyone to vouch for its validity. It is an example, however, of the prevalent adventurous and experimental temperament of the Florida farmer.

The Florida citrus industry, though antedating by centuries that of California, was for years operating under self-imposed handicaps from which the California growers, early in their industry’s history, freed themselves. These handicaps had their origin in the individualistic tendencies and habits of Florida orange growers and their comparative isolation, one from another, scattered as Florida groves are over a territory many times as large as the California orange district and each locality dependent upon transportation and shipping facilities entirely different from those available to the growers in other districts.

When the English-speaking settlers in Florida began their horticultural experiments with the original sour orange of the Spanish stock they had no common standard of excellence nor, indeed, any common knowledge that others were at work on the same problem as themselves. There was no central clearing house of information, no scientific background for their exeriments and, since modern transportation facilities and the vastness of present day markets were still undreamed of secrets hidden behind the veil of the future, there was no individual or common purpose of producing an orange which would mature early or late as might be desired by the ultimate consumer, that would not only please the palate but the buyer’s eye, that would stand shipment over long distances after being ripened on the tree-in other words, a commercial orange.

California, starting its orange industry practically from scratch, with Florida’s centuries of experience and experiment behind it and backed by men who had learned about orange cultivation in Florida, established those objectives almost from the start, shrewdly brought the state’s entire production to fixed commercial standards, and at the same time organized the marketing of California oranges through a central agency which established effective control of distribution from tree to consumer, enabling California to promote its orange business by nation-wide advertising in the certainty that the demand so created could be supplied by any corner grocer anywhere in the United States. Thus arose a condition under which the superior Florida orange was left behind in the race for the markets of the East, although it had a 2,500-mile advantage over California in the matter of distance.

In short, while Florida continued to grow oranges as it had done from the beginning, primarily to eat at home or to please the individual tastes of its own growers and their neigh bors, California began where Florida left off and established its citrus industry as a commercial business from the beginning, concentrating unitedly upon two or three varieties selected, not to please anyone in particular but to suit the average person who had never had experience with Florida oranges.

As recently as 1925 there were 156 distinct varieties of Florida oranges competing with each other in the markets of the North, and there were 132 separate and distinct sales agen cies and organizations struggling with each other for advantage in those markets in the distribution of Florida citrus fruits. Nobody at the growing end could have any certainty, under those conditions, that his crop was going to be sold at a price that would cover his costs, if sold at all. And no consumer who preferred Florida oranges to California’s could be sure of getting them. If the consumer did find Florida oranges in the market there was no assurance of their quality. They might have been picked green, and often were. They might have been picked fully ripe and still look green, for some varieties of Florida oranges have a curious trick of losing their yellow color after picking, although they have been ripened on the tree.

Under conditions like that every grower, every shipper and every distributor was a law unto himself; but after repeated failures to get together on a cooperative program for mutual benefit, in 1925 the State Government took the first step to establish standards of quality to which Florida oranges and grapefruit must conform before they could be shipped out of the state. Throughout the next ten years the activity of the Citrus Inspection Bureau was confined to field inspections, to determine whether the fruit on the trees was ripe enough to pick and ship. These inspections began on September 1 and ended November 30, by which time, it was assumed, there would be no more unripe fruit on the trees. Still California oranges continued to dominate the nation’s markets, and still a great deal of the fruit shipped from Florida was either actually unripe or appeared to be.

Nevertheless, the economic conditions of the Florida citrus industry did continue to improve. Something like 150,000 acres of groves which had been planted as large scale commercial enterprises in the early and middle 1920’s began to come into full bearing, and as these new plantings had been limited to the varieties which the experience of California and Florida alike had proved were best adapted to the demands of the market, their growers were able, by adopting marketing practices taken from California’s book, to bring a degree of order out of the chaos which had handicapped the whole Florida industry.

They were still, however, in competition inside their own state with growers who persisted in evading the law by shipping green fruit, and there was still insufficient cooperation among the growers generally to insure anything like orderly distribution. California, in these ten years, was not only making the American public orange-conscious, but convincing it that California oranges were the best oranges, while Texas was coming into the market strongly with its own grapefruit, having organized that industry from its beginning on the systematic cooperative lines of the California orange industry.