By Brenda Eubanks Burnette
October has always signaled the first crop forecast, heralding the start of a new Florida citrus season. However, picking often begins in September for some eager to be the first out of the blocks. But, in the early days, with so much of the crop being sold fresh, it was imperative not to ruin the rest of the season for the industry by selling fruit that might “sour” the market. Therefore, the push was made to try to find a means to extend Florida’s citrus crop through marketing canned citrus products — especially grapefruit.
Prior to the development of grapefruit canning in Florida, there was much waste due to various factors such as drop, market fluctuation, sizing and so forth. During the 1923–24 season, one packinghouse alone dumped 50,000 boxes of culled grapefruit! With the rapid advancement of new canning industry methods, by 1923 grapefruit canning had slowly reached a commercial scale until there were 1,316,738 cases of grapefruit hearts sold in 1929–30, with more than that amount of orders for the following season placed by November 1930.
In the early years, the packinghouses donated the culls to help start the canning industry, since the fruit had no value at the time. The book “Marketing for Profit,” published in 1930 by The American Agricultural Chemical Company in Lakeland, Florida, noted that “In 1929–30 the value of canned grapefruit and grapefruit juice was estimated at over $5,000,000. The financial support thus given the growers by the canneries was such that, in spite of the restricted market allotted to Florida grapefruit under fly-quarantine regulations, the growers realized for their boxed fruit the highest price ever paid in the history of the industry.”
The canning sector continued to expand, improving Florida’s economic position by providing a 12-month marketing season for citrus products. However, at that time, fresh fruit was king, and I doubt many people would have thought the juice market would grow to outweigh the fresh fruit industry as it does today. In fact, the book also included this statement about grapefruit and orange juice: “In addition to canned grapefruit hearts, the manufacture of canned grapefruit juice is making considerable headway, and orange juice will eventually be perfected for bottling and canning purposes. This juice product will create an additional demand for canning-grade fruit.” No truer statement could be made!
The canning industry also created another by-product: citrus canning labels — an artistic collectible artifact of an historic era. The Florida Citrus Hall of Fame is currently in the process of digitizing a large collection of these citrus canning labels. While not as prolific as the crate labels, they are yet another colorful facet of the citrus industry, along with the cans themselves.
If you have any citrus crate or can labels, photographs or postcards that you would like to donate to the State of Florida Citrus Archives, please contact me at BBurne1003@aol.com so we can continue to add to the collections and share them with future generations!
Brenda Eubanks Burnette is executive director of the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. Pieces of the Past is presented in partnership with Florida Southern College’s McKay Archives Center in Lakeland.