Through freezes and diseases, citrus grower’s identity springs from the soil
Fourth-generation Central Florida citrus grower Eddie White has seen urbanization and citrus disease threaten the industry and his way of life, but he honors his heritage by running his family’s grove in new ways.
Eddie White, 64, is president of Red Hill Groves, a citru farm that has been in his family for four generations. But since the 1970s, White has watched a steady host of changes and problems – including rapid urbanization, multiple freezes and invasive diseases – diminish the citrus industry in Florida and his own family’s citrus acreage. Despite these challenges, his business means a lot to him, and his property is a special place for him and his family.
“It’s the little slice of Florida that we have left. There’s not many places like this left, and I just can’t imagine living anywhere else,” White said.
Red Hill Groves in Sanford, just north of Orlando, is an emerald isle of disappearing rural life surrounded by rising subdivisions and four-lane highways bustling with traffic. In addition to rows of citrus trees bearing oranges, grapefruit and tangerines, chickens scratch and peck at their feed and strawberries grow in warm greenhouses. A tractor barn filled with family and agricultural memorabilia also serves as a retail hub where the White family sells oranges, jams, jellies, honey, candies, freshly squeezed orange juice and Southern barbeque.
White has been picking oranges since his youth and says his fingernails are still dirty from planting trees over the years. He was introduced to citrus by his father, William White, 90.
“It’s home,’’ William White said, reflecting on the farm and its history. “The grove means a great deal to us. It is the makings of a seedling citrus grove that was here in 1902.’’
On a warm, sunny January day – the kind that makes people in snowy Milwaukee and Buffalo wish they lived here – Eddie White walks through his groves looking at some of his stunted orange trees while hearing the cars zoom by on the roads around him.
Florida’s citrus industry has changed drastically over the last few decades. Invasive diseases such as citrus canker and citrus greening have damaged groves all over the state and caused many to dwindle. Orange trees that are diseased are also known to produce lower quality fruit.
The White family once had about 40 acres of citrus groves spread out across Seminole, Orange and Brevard counties; however, eight acres remain today. It’s a snapshot of a larger picture in Florida – a state historically associated with oranges – where 857,687 acres were planted in citrus statewide in 1996, but as of September 2022, only 375,302 acres remain, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual citrus inventory report.
In the face of these challenges, White says that he will continue to run his citrus farm.
“It’s the profession I’ve chosen and I’ll continue to do it until I can’t do it anymore,’’ Eddie White said. “When you’re in the citrus business, you never retire.”
Urbanization has also changed White’s industry. The small rural farmland his family planted their roots in is now overcrowded with houses and busy highways.
According to a 2021 report from the Orlando Economic Partnership, about 1,000 people move to Central Florida each week, and a recent 2022 report from the U.S. Census Bureau highlights Florida as the fastest-growing state in the union. Eddie White describes housing development in Sanford as neverending.
“Florida doesn’t grow citrus anymore. Florida grows houses,’’ Eddie White said. “In the old days, $3,500 … $3,000, you could even get land for $500, but you bought cheap dirt. Cheap dirt because it takes five years for an orange tree to grow before it becomes viable.’’
Growing citrus takes a lot of “cheap dirt,’’ Eddie White said, which has become more valuable to landowners to develop as subdivisions, strip malls and distribution centers for trucking.
Eddie White marks the change in Central Florida from a rural to urban community with the arrival of Walt Disney World in 1971. He was there when the parks first opened, and he says the influx of tourists – and people deciding to come back to live in Florida – has led to all the traffic, new manufacturing and housing developments that now surround his grove.
“There is B.D. and A.D. – before Disney and after Disney,” Eddie White said.
Nevertheless, he says he won’t sell his property as the farm is linked to his family and the history of citrus in Sanford. Although the farm animals in the surrounding area have been replaced with heavy traffic, Eddie White enjoys looking at the land around him, and remembering the days before urbanization changed his rural community. He says learning to adapt to the changes – like his family has had to do – is what it means to be a Floridian.
“Now it all looks like this and we just deal with change,” Eddie White said. “When you say, what’s it like to be a Floridian, you can reminisce about the cows out in the field and riding your horse and cracking the bullwhip.”
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