Say "orange juice," and Florida comes to mind. The Florida stamp on a carton of orange juice is considered a sign of quality. Florida is where orange juice is supposed to come from.
Florida was also once synonymous with oranges. Not anymore. Now say "Florida" and Disney World, golf courses, and condominiums come to mind. Florida's transformation in the national imagination reflects reality. Orange trees in Florida are relatively few and far between. They no longer line the highways as they used to, sprouting juice stands along the way. Whole groves are being uprooted to make room for the state's tourists and retirees. Come-visit-Florida ads show pictures of surf and golf turf rather than groves and truckloads of oranges.
The simultaneous view of orange juice as the territory of Florida and Florida as mostly grass, concrete, and saltwater is puzzling. How can a state that grows a marginalized number of orange trees supply the rest of the country, continent, and world with top-notch orange juice, as many consumers still believe? It cannot. Although roughly 96 percent of Florida's oranges are processed into juice, the actual number of juice oranges the state grows is declining. Oranges from Brazil, not Florida, supply North America and the world with most of its juice.
The association between orange juice and Florida is not baseless. Florida originally grew most of its oranges for the fresh market. That changed when processed orange juice, with the state's help, became a North American staple. After more than a century of transporting oranges whole to states across the nation, Florida turned almost overnight into the home of the juice orange and orange juice industry. The 96 percent statistic is a relic of this time not too long ago when orange juice and Florida were one and the same. Taking a trip back is essential to shedding outmoded beliefs about the current state of the industry.
Not even Californians, who can claim a few of the earliest citrus processing plants, would argue that Florida is the birthplace of processed orange juice. The industry that grew there was centuries in the making. First the orange had to find its way to North America.
Florida's oranges have traveled far from their birthplace in Southeast Asia. Citrus sinensis, the sweet orange upon which Florida's orange juice empire is built, is thought to be a cross between a pummelo, a seedy thick-skinned ancestor of the grapefruit, and a mandarin. The hybrid, which makes it a "convenience" rather than true species, is a native of northeastern India and the adjoining portions of China and Burma. From India the Arabs helped spread the sweet orange to Europe and northern Africa in the fifteenth century. Oranges rolled through Persia, Syria, and Italy, landing in the south of France. The bitter orange, a close relative, took a slightly different route. It moved from Arabia to Egypt, continuing through northern Africa to Spain and Portugal. As John McPhee noted in regards to the orange's westward journey, in the sixth and seventh centuries Islamic forces conquered the world from India to Spain, growing trees along the way.
The English word "orange" derives from the French "or," meaning gold. The name suits a fruit that, in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, was a novelty and restricted to royalty-Louis XIV reputedly loved oranges. It is also fitting for a fruit that has for centuries, and especially upon its arrival in Florida, proved to be worth at least its weight in gold.
Southern China was the first to grow the sweet orange commercially. Cultivation in the upper Mediterranean basin began in the mid-fifteenth century. The seeds for Florida's prolific Sunshine Tree were not planted until 1560 when, with golden fruit in hand, Spanish explorers began frequenting the New World paradise. Pomologists, those studied in fruit trees and their cultivation, assume that the original trees that grew in Florida were of the bittersweet type that was common in Seville. Although a long time arriving in Florida, the orange took readily to its new semitropical surroundings. The bitter seeds from Spain began to grow into sweet commercial groves after Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1821.
Historians of the Florida citrus industry trace its beginnings to the grove that Captain D. D. Dummitt planted on Merritt Island in 1830. Dummitt's grove, believed to be the oldest in Florida, authored the Indian River citrus label that still carries a national reputation as a premium product. The construction of railroads during the 1860s helped push the industry that Dummitt started forward. However, the real stimulus for the orange industry awaited the introduction the following decade of two sweet orange varieties that colonized Florida in the twentieth century.
The first of Florida's two dominant orange varieties arrived in Florida via a circuitous, and among historians disputed, route. The standard account has citrus enthusiast Thomas Rivers bringing the variety from the Azores to his world-renowned nursery in Hertfordshire, England, in 1865. He catalogued it, so the story goes, under the name Excelsior. Entrepreneur Samuel Parsons then took over the variety's journey from Portugal to Florida. A Yankee from Flushing, New York, Parsons established Florida's first orange nursery in Lakeland in the 1870s. He brought the variety from Rivers's nursery in England to Florida. He proceeded to give the imports to E. H. Hart of Federal Point Florida for distribution. Confusion followed. After losing the label, Hart made up a name that suited the trees' agricultural cycle. Consistent with their comparatively late peak date between March and June, he tagged them "Hart's Late." The name changed once in trade to Hart's Tardiff.
According to one version of what transpired next, simultaneously, yet in a distant time zone, a Mr. Calby A. Chapman of California had also been patronizing Rivers's nursery in Hertfordshire. He, like Parsons, was seeking new orange varieties with which to build his citrus business. Between 1870 and 1872 he imported a number of varieties. One supposed navel was not what the label said. Word has it that, acting on the suggestion of his Spanish laborer, Chapman named the mystery variety Valencia Late. Variations on this account abound. The events unfold differently depending on the dramatist's leaning. Under the penmanship of historian of Florida's citrus industry, Robert Hodgson, Chapman did not acquire the late maturing trees from Rivers's nursery. Instead, in 1876 Parsons sent some trees to Chapman, one of which was called "Rivers' Late." In this twist, a Spanish visitor noted the variety's similarity to a late maturing orange that grew in Valencia. He, not Chapman's laborer, renamed the tree Valencia Late. Eventually it became evident that Hart's Tardiff and Valencia Late were the same fruit. So Hodgson explains the name "Valencia" for the variety of orange that almost all in Florida agree, and in the words of Jim Griffiths, managing director of Florida's Citrus Grower Associates, is "far and away the best thing we grow."
From Hodgson's Florida-centered perspective, Chapman's Californian involvement does not jeopardize Florida's claim to being the first American home of what has become known as the Cadillac of oranges. But Hodgson is not content to end the matter of the gold standard of oranges there. He challenges the insinuation made by the name that the variety derives from Spain. He cites Madrid agronomist Gonzalez-Sicilia, who hypothesized that Florida soil developed the variety's identity forming characteristics that the Spanish then imported neatly packed within the orange skin's wrap. Florida is, in Gonzalez-Sicilia's books, not merely Valencia's first American home. Florida is the home and native land of the orange that is prized today by every juice processor for its deep orange color, distinctive flavor, and high juice content.
The origin of Florida's other distinguished juice orange, the Hamlin, is less controversial. The Hamlin orange entered Florida's citrus industry through the common practice during the nineteenth century of planting trees from seed. The orange's hybrid nature means that planting the seed of one variety will not guarantee an identical offspring. This unpredictability made studied walks among trees a necessity in the early days. On the one hand the random genes contained within each seed could turn up trees as valuable to the commercial grower as a weed. On the other hand they could combine to produce fame and fortune, as they did for H. E. Hamlin. During one walk in 1879 Hamlin discovered a chance seedling in his Glenwood Florida grove that had favorable qualities. He called the variety Hamlin. The rest is history.
In the 1880s budding rather than planting from seed became the propagation method of choice among commercial growers. The technique promised earlier bearing, less thorny, trees holding uniform fruit. According to the standard procedure that survives today, each tree is conceived in a nursery, where seed for the tree's rootstock is planted in a tray. In three to four months, when the seedling stands about six inches high, it is transplanted into a field or, in the case of the self-explanatory "container" method developed in the 1970s, a pot. Whether in field or pot, the seedling is allowed to rest long enough to grow strong enough for the grafting operation known as "budding." Two months is the norm. When ready, an incision is made in the seedling's stalk where budwood, now commonly ordered from Florida's Department of Plant Industry, from the sweet orange variety of choice, is inserted. The budded tree takes an average of eight months, for a total of a little more than a year from the start date, before it is ready to sell to the grower. The tree the grower receives from the nursery does not begin bearing fruit immediately. At least five or six years are needed before the tree begins to produce commercially.
Budding transformed citrus growing in Florida. Since the introduction of the procedure, the sweet orange has had less opportunity to express the genetic diversity contained beneath its peel. Each commercial orange tree bears the lesion where carefully screened and selected budwood of a particular variety was surgically inserted into the rootstock of equally scrutinized pedigree. The resulting uniformity allows for larger groves and less grower interaction with single trees. Whereas a hundred-acre grove would have been considered large in the 1880s, now groves spanning thousands of acres are not unusual.
Roland Dilley, the owner and founder of one of Florida's largest citrus nurseries, describes the situation. "There's not very many horticulturists around. They're money counters, some of the sharpest kids I've ever seen with a computer.... But to grow you need to make tracks in what you're doing, without footprints [you're] in trouble. You better be out there looking." The new super-sized groves have made the types of searches that growers such as Hamlin daily performed not only infeasible but also unnecessary. Now that every tree is for the most part the same-an errant tree will pop up infrequently as nature's revenge-there is little reason to walk among them.
The end of Hamlin's routine marks the loss of a major source of sweet orange diversity. Unlike the past, growers are no longer introducing new varieties into Citrus sinensis lexicography. What this will mean for the hybrid's future is unclear. Michael Kesinger, chief of Florida's Bureau of Citrus Budwood Registration, a branch of the Florida Department of Agriculture's Division of Plant Industry, is hopeful that "new improvements ... are going to be introduced by citrus breeders." He is in a position to know. The Bureau tracks new Citrus sinensis introductions as part of a program to prevent the spread of disease, a hazard of the grafting procedure. Yet decades of citrus research and generations of breeders have yet to provide a match for Hamlin's keen eye. The Hamlin tree still stands uncontested as the principal early maturing sweet orange variety. In the 2002-2003 season it even surpassed Valencia in popularity. The pale-colored but highly productive Hamlin held an impressive 44.2 percent share of the sweet oranges propagated in Florida, while the Valencia held 34.8 percent. Together the two nineteenth-century introductions comprised almost 80 percent of Florida's sweet orange crop. Breeders will have to work quickly to make a dent in this figure anytime in the near future.
Although the raw materials were available at the end of the nineteenth century to supply a booming late twentieth-century orange juice industry, they were not immediately squeezed to their potential. For the first half of the twentieth century, Florida's citrus industry was geared toward the production of fresh fruit. The Valencia and Hamlin, ideal for making juice, were less remarkable as fresh fruit. Many of their attributes, such as few seeds, though assets to the modern processor, were a liability to turn-of-the-twentieth-century growers. Those who had not yet converted to grafting preferred varieties that had seeds with which to grow more trees.
The conclusions of a committee of citrus growers that met in 1915 reveal how little attention the Hamlin initially received. The committee suggested that growers restrict their plantings of sweet oranges to Parson Brown, Homosassa, Pineapple, and Valencia. Although there was no late-season equal to Valencia, evidently Parson Brown, a seedy early maturing variety, was preferred to Hamlin well into the twentieth century.
The recommendations of the committee ring discordantly in the ears of the twenty-first-century juice processor. Processors now know how poorly Parson Browns perform next to Hamlins. Tropicana has nothing positive to say about the once heavily planted variety. The company used the variety in its blend until 2000, when extensive testing demonstrated its negative effects on juice quality. It has since pulled the Parson Brown out of its "Pure Premium" line. As of 2004 it was looking forward to the expiry date of its contract with a high-volume supplier of the variety.
Not all the committee's words were inimical to the growth of a thriving juice industry. Its suggestion to pare down plantings to four varieties reflected a growing belief that the diversity of existing groves was inefficient. A state nursery inspector echoed this concern at the 1922 meeting of the Florida State Horticultural Society. The inspector praised the USDA pomologist who spoke before him for having "shown clearly the handicap under which Florida, with many varieties of oranges, labored when competing with California, which has but two." The pomologist, the inspector reminded his audience, had emphasized "the advantages of the smallest possible number of varieties to cover the season."
Florida growers eventually listened. The Parson Brown, Homosassa, Pineapple, and Valencia lineup became a common rotation. The first is an "early" orange, the second two "early-mids," and the last a "late" bloomer. Together the foursome promised fruit every month of the season while limiting the number of varieties to no more than two at any one time. This was the closest Florida could come to California's dynamic duo, the navel and Valencia.
For the juice processor Florida's inability to mimic California's cycle exactly was propitious. While only one of the two common varieties grown in California was suited to juice processing, each in Florida's foursome boasted a relatively good juicing profile. Florida was primed to become the world's leading juice orange producer.
The redesign of Florida's groves according to the 1915 committee's advice pushed the state's orange industry, already running in overdrive, toward juice dependency. By the turn of the twentieth century Florida's citrus groves had grown out of control. The growers knew it. Beginning in the twilight decades of the 1800s, each year they rode on horseback from all corners of the state to whichever town was hosting the annual Florida Orange Growers Convention. The Convention provided a rare opportunity for citrus growers to unite to discuss the condition of their industry.
Excerpted from Squeezedby Alissa Hamilton Copyright © 2009 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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