By Brenda Eubanks Burnette
It’s hard to imagine how the early pioneers managed to grow, pick, pack and ship their fruit without the technological means we have today. In doing various oral history interviews this year, that point was really brought home to me. One grower recalled how irrigating his family’s grove meant moving the actual water pipes manually from row to row in the heat of the summer. “That was heavy work. Man, was I happy when microjets came along!” he said.
Another remembered “firing the groves” and being covered in soot by the end of the night from the burning smudge pots, with hands so cold he couldn’t feel them — even with a shot of “liquid fire.” I still remember the boys in high school being able to skip school the next day due to being needed during freeze nights to help place the pots and heaters.
“If you’re a farmer, you’re a gambler,” said one interviewee laughingly. Then he sobered and said, “I remember when all you could see were groves from the top of the Citrus Tower in Clermont. There was a sign there that said they’d pay you a quarter if you could see the roof of a house from there … Now they’d have to pay you if you could see an orange tree!” He can still remember which groves used to be where and although he misses them, he said he was happy he had the opportunity to grow up working as a Florida citrus grower.
“It’s not work to me. I’m lucky to be doing something I love,” said another. “I still go in the groves every day, and I’ll be 89 this year … There’s nothing better than seeing a pretty grove. It’s still one of the most beautiful sights in the world to me!”
And despite all of the problems we’re facing today, one grower recalled how many problems they thought would end the citrus industry in the past but didn’t. “We’ve had fruit fly infestations, canker, a decade of freezes — all of which we thought would be the end of the citrus industry here in Florida. But we’re still here because that’s who we are.”
Even those generations just entering the industry in the last 20 years have fond memories of growing up in the industry. One recent interviewee recalled being in the groves pruning and hoeing in the heat of the Florida summer with some of his high school buddies, while their other friends were off on vacation. “I remember it was hot, sweaty, hard work. However, it’s still one of my favorite high school memories because it created a bond between us, and we were all having fun while we did it!”
All of the interviewees recalled the camaraderie of working side by side with fellow growers and friends to produce the fruit that was their way of life. They remembered the meals at favorite lunch spots throughout the state during which they would share their experiences and either laugh or commiserate with each other accordingly. They remembered the on-call, 24/7 nature of their work that is only understood by fellow industry members. They remembered those times with fondness and a sense of wonder at how they got through all of the hard times in between the good times, managing to make a good life for their families and thankful for every day they woke up to another sunrise in Florida.
So, as we gather together this Thanksgiving season, look back and give thanks for those who have paved the road behind you and made your journey possible, then think about the road that you will leave behind for the generation to follow!
Visit vimeopro.com/user1997285/citrus-hall-of-fame-oral-histories to watch the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame oral history videos.
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.