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With approximately ten million boxes of oranges and eight million boxes of grapefruit shipped to northern and western markets last season, with an annually increasing yield from the normal growth of the bearing trees, with the coming into bearing of many new groves, and with a steadily increasing acreage, the citrus industry of Florida has a future of large promise.
The growth of Florida's citrus industry has been as romantic as it has been remarkable. Contrary to general belief, the orange tree is not indigenous to Florida but was introduced into the state from Valencia by the Spanish colonists. Apparently it spread rapidly, for when the state was opened up to general settlement in the early forties the orange tree was found growing wild in large areas in many parts of the state. At that time the Florida seedling had no commercial value at all, and thousands upon thousands of acres were ruthlessly destroyed to make room for cotton and sugar cane, just as were the pecans of Texas and Louisiana, whose loss now is so well realized.
It is to an Englishman by the name of John Eaton, who in return for his services in the Seminole War had been granted a quarter of a section of land under the Government's plan of soldier colonization, that the citrus industry of Florida owes its birth. His homestead was on the St. Johns River, in what is now Orange County. Only about ten acres of his property were cultivated, due to lack of drainage, so that in his state of bachelorhood Eaton had ample time for experimentation. Someone had initiated him into the mysteries of grafting, and he determined to attempt to graft the sweet on the wild, bitter orange of Florida. That his experiment was a success the Florida orange industry of today stands as a lasting monument.
Thirty odd years ago, Middle Florida produced practically all of the citrus fruit grown in Florida, over three-quarters of the entire crop being shipped from Ocala, the seat of Marion County. The industry at that time was in a most prosperous condition. Money was being made on every side, and that money was being reinvested in new and larger groves. Then came the great freeze of '95, and in a single night, as it were, the whole citrus industry of Florida was wiped from the map, nearly every grove being destroyed and over four million boxes of luscious fruit being killed on the tree.
Never in history, perhaps, did any industry receive a severer blow than this, and it was a blow that shook to its foundations the whole industrial fabric of the state, for Florida at that time depended almost wholly on her citrus industry for her commercial prosperity. So revolutionary was its effect, indeed, that almost everything in North and Middle Florida today may be said to date from the year of the big freeze.
The freeze changed the face of the whole map of Florida. Few of the old groves were replanted, the citrus belt being moved farther southward, some of the growers going as far south as De Soto, Manatee, and Lee Counties. A few years previously the mere suggestion of orange growing in these more southerly counties would have been ridiculed, because of the difficulties of transportation; today, however, many of the finest groves in all the state are very much farther south, on both the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, particularly those of Dade County, and along the Caloosahatchee and southward from Fort Myers in Lee to below Naples, in the newly organized colony of Collier, named after Barron G. Collier, the New York advertising magnate, who owns almost all of this prolific section of the Florida Everglades. Since that time, too, the Sarasota country has been developed, and also the famous Ridge Region of Polk and Highlands Counties, those once barren sandhills which now grow more oranges and grapefruit than any other section of the state, producing over one-third of all the fruit of Florida.
It is to Dr. Frederick W. Inman, one of the greatest figures who ever trod the stage of Florida affairs, that the Ridge Region owes, in very large measure, its present development and prosperity. Dr. Inman came to Florida in the middle eighties, developing the world-famous orange groves at Florence Villa, now an incorporated part of Winter Haven, that beautiful city of a hundred lakes, thought by many to be the crown jewel of the Ridge. Besides demonstrating conclusively the citrus growing possibilities of Florida's pinehills, Dr. Inman was a potent force in the upbuilding of the state. He was largely responsible for the development of railroad communications for the Ridge, and was the greatest single factor in the formation and upbuilding of the Florida Citrus Exchange, an organization that should have the signal cooperation of all the citrus growers of Florida.
A single grove from Davenport, on the north, to Lake Annie, on the mouth, interspersed only by the homes and playgrounds of the northern tourists who are singling out this section of the state in great number every year. In this Ridge Region are found many of the most exclusive developments in Florida, such as Mountain Lake, near Lake Wales, within sight of Iron Mountain, said to be the highest elevation in all Florida.
While the Florida orange is known and relished wherever oranges are consumed, it is perhaps not generally known that there are no less than 150 varieties of the Florida fruit. Some of these varieties differ so much in general characteristics as to be in all senses of the word a distinct orange, while others differ only in detail. The merchantable crop, however, is comprised of less than a dozen species, these being the Sweet Native Seedling, Parson Brown, Pineapple, King, Jaffa, Ruby Blood, Valencia Late, Temple, and Tangerine. At one time the Sweet Seedling comprised at least seventy-five per cent of the annual crop, the famous Indian River oranges being practically of this species entirely, but now by far the larger proportion of the planted acreage is in budded trees, this condition being attributable to the fact that the budded tree will ripen in from three to five years as against at least seven years for the seedling.
The grapefruit was introduced into Florida from the East Indian Islands by a Captain Shaddock, and for years was known as Shaddock. When first displayed they were regarded as monstrosities, something pleasing to the eye but not to the taste. The first two carloads consigned from Lakeland to Chicago, indeed, not only did not return the money represented in their investment, but actually cost the purchaser $225 in freight. Chicago did not want any Florida grapefruit, thank you! Last year no less than 100,000 boxes of grapefruit were consumed in the "Windy City" bringing at retail about $8.00 a box.
An orange that is being grown on a most extensive and successful scale in West Florida, particularly in the region of St. Andrews Bay, is the Satsuma, named for a city in Japan where it is said to have originated. The great advantage of the Satsuma is its ability to withstand the most severe freezes that visit the Gulf Coast, due largely to the fact that it is budded on the trifoliata, a semi-tropical evergreen of a most hardy type. There are said to be a quarter of a million acres in West Florida adapted to Satsuma culture.
Florida has a present citrus fruit area of 140,000 acres of bearing and 60,000 acres of non-bearing orange trees, and 60,000 acres of bearing and 25,000 acres of non-bearing grapefruit trees. The industry at present is returning approximately $30,000,000 annually to those engaged in it.
In the production of strawberries Florida has already become world famous, particularly because of her ability to market her product very much earlier than the other Southern strawberry producing regions. Florida's strawberries command uniformly higher prices than others grown, 75 cents to a dollar a box to the grower for the earlier fruit being not uncommon, and an average of 25 cents a box for the entire crop being the rule rather than the exception. The center of Florida's strawberry industry is Plant City, in the eastern part of Hillsborough County, where hundreds of acres are in cultivation to this most important crop, other strawberry sections being Lawtey and Starke. Last year, approximately 850 cars of strawberries, valued at more than a million dollars, were shipped to northern markets from Florida.
With a production of 5,500 carloads of watermelons, valued at $2,750,000, Florida is now second only to Georgia in the production of the delectable fruit whose cultivation has so contributed to the wealth of the Empire State of the South. Marion County is the present chief center of the watermelon industry, although the growing of watermelons is being carried on extensively throughout the state, Jefferson County, by the way, producing all of the watermelon seed used in the world.
Within a very few years Florida is destined to become conspicuous in many other branches of horticulture. There appears to be no tangible reason why pears, peaches, and plums could not be grown commercially in many sections of Florida, particularly in what is known as the hill sections. Then there is the grape. Today grapes are being experimented with through the state, and it is confidently hoped that their cultivation will become an industry of the very first magnitude. The commercial growing of both blueberries and blackberries also gives promise of large returns, especially in West Florida whose climate and soil appear to be particularly well adapted to their cultivation, as also to the growing of the fig, which thrives anywhere between the Suwanee and the Perdido as well perhaps as in any part of this continent. The preserving of figs is now an important industry in many portions of West Florida.
Some of the essentially tropical fruits are now being grown in Florida, particularly in the more southerly portions of the state, where climatic conditions approximate somewhat those of the lands to which these fruits are indigenous. Among these are mangoes, guavas, kumquats, bananas, coconuts, sapodillas, sugar apples, and avocados, commonly known as alligator pears. The growing of avocados is becoming a most important industry, and the acreage to this fruit is being rapidly extended, especially on reclaimed Everglades lands. The value of the annual output of avocados at present is approximately $2,000,000.
Thousands of acres of bananas are also being planted in Florida, particularly in what is known as the Peace River Valley, in Polk County. The banana has thrived in Florida in a noncommercial way since the day of the state's settlement, the common variety grown being know as the "Lady Finger." This banana has a delicious flavor, but cannot be marketed commercially. The banana now being planted is what is claimed to be an improved "Cavendish," a native of China. This banana seems to thrive well in Florida, but the growing of bananas involves large economic problems and until these have been solved it would not appear wise to predict the future of the fruit that has so enriched many of the Central American republics.
Excerpt from: Agassiz, Garnault. "Florida in Tomorrow's Sun."
Suniland, Nov. 1925, Vol.3, No.2., Pgs. 37-45; 88-94; 113-133
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