PIECES OF THE PAST: An Impactful Citrus Sisterhood

Daniel CooperMiss Florida Citrus, Pieces of the Past

By Brenda Eubanks Burnette

It’s amazing to see how impactful the Florida Citrus Queens have been in marketing our crops! From swimming with dolphins to posing on top of the sign for the host hotel of the annual pageant, these women worked overtime to sell Florida citrus.

Dick Pope, founder of Cypress Gardens, was a master at using the Florida Citrus Queens to promote Winter Haven and the Florida citrus industry. But one thing that is often overlooked within the industry is the role these women played when things didn’t go well.

Patti Bohannon
1967 Florida Citrus Queen

In the 1970s, Anita Byrant, a citrus industry spokesperson, was under attack for her personal beliefs. The Florida Citrus Queen at that time was Lisa Maile, who had to deflect both physical volleys of oranges as well as intense media scrutiny regarding the situation.

“I was constantly asked by both the media and the general public about Ms. Bryant’s stance, and my goal was to continue to promote the wholesomeness of Florida orange juice and deflect any talk about her beliefs at the time,” said Maile.

When canker was threatening the citrus industry and trees were being burned, not only in the groves but in homeowner yards, the Florida Citrus Queen was often under attack by consumers and media alike. Her goal at that time was to educate consumers that canker wasn’t cancer and that it wasn’t a human disease; it only damaged citrus trees.

The back-to-back freezes in the 1980s brought about another media frenzy. The queens during that decade were given intensive public relations training to help explain the situation to the general public through their many media appearances. The Brix controversy during that time was also underway, as the industry sought to lower the juice solids in an effort to expand decreased inventory due to the freezes. The public wasn’t involved to much effect, but the retail and food service markets were. The queens were often involved in discussing this topic with the heads of major corporations that were affected but didn’t understand the situation. I distinctly remember answering questions from one major retailer who told our citrus representative: “She’s explained it better than any of you guys ever did!”

Casana Fink
2023 Miss Florida Citrus

The queens were even involved in legislative meetings. They often helped to open doors for industry leaders through the casual “drop by” visit to deliver fruit baskets and pose for pictures in both Tallahassee and Washington. The visits allowed industry leaders to make their point, however briefly, when they otherwise might not have been able to see the legislators at all!

Many of the queens that were interviewed this year recalled a day in the life as Miss Florida Citrus as: “An early wakeup call to do the 4 a.m. farm show in Chicago, followed by serving juice at a restaurant chain, media appearances, visits to schools, lunch serving juice in a restaurant, media appearances, visits to hospitals or nursing homes, dinner with retailers or suppliers and then doing it all again the next day, just in a different location.”

Although today’s queens don’t have the rigorous schedule of those in the past, they could and can still make a difference through good marketing efforts, if applied. Always Fresh Farms still does a marketing trip every January to use Miss Florida Citrus to help sell Florida citrus in Texas!

So, as you raise your glass of OJ this morning, please toast these unsung heroes of our industry and the hard work they’ve put in over the years to promote our livelihood. It’s truly a unique citrus sisterhood!

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.

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