Michael Woodley: From Firefighter to Lemon Grower

Tacy Callies lemons

Michael Woodley is growing lemons for oil in Polk County, Florida. 

Michael Woodley returned to his hometown of Frostproof, Florida, in 2011 at the request of his dying mother to take care of the land and keep it in the family. After a firefighting career of more than 30 years with the Florida Forest Service that took him all over the state, he is now growing lemons on 20 acres on his grandparents’ property. 

Woodley comes from a long line of agricultural producers on both sides of his family. His great-great grandparents on his father’s side sailed to Fort Myers from Ireland in the 1880s and had hundreds of acres of citrus and cattle. His family on his mother’s side has been in agriculture for four generations. Now Woodley is a small producer of a specialty crop.

“When people think of farming, they think of big fields, combines and grain elevators, not a lemon tree,” he says.

Woodley attempted to grow the oranges and grapefruit he inherited on the property, but after fighting canker and greening, he wanted to try something a little different. “There is a tremendous demand for lemon oil, from cleaning products to flavorings,” he says. In 2018, he planted high-producing Bearss lemon trees that are resistant to citrus greening. The trees are expected to produce in 2023 and bear two crops per year.

“No one in this area has grown lemons commercially since a hard freeze wiped out all the lemon orchards in 1962,” Woodley says.

He used financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentive Program to install microirrigation in 2019. He signed up for the Conservation Stewardship Program and was accepted for a four-year contract to plant pollinator habitat. Woodley will receive annual payments to maintain his existing conservation activities in addition to planting pollinator habitat.

He says he is trying to use as little chemicals and pesticides as possible. Although citrus doesn’t require bees to pollinate, he says the grove will produce a third more fruit by having bees. He also wants to attract a host of diverse “good insects” to eliminate pests. “And it’s just beneficial to the environment,” he says. 

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

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