Business

Roadside retraction

Florida citrus stands, once numbering in the thousands, are dwindling


Al's Family Farm in Fort Pierce.

The New York Times
Published: Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 3:17 p.m.

Jeffrey Schorner darts through Al's Family Farms like a car salesman in a crowded showroom. He brags about his orange juice. He climbs under the packing machine. He grabs a tangelo for a gift box, then orders his 15-year-old son to the nearby groves.

"Pick me two sunbursts," he shouts, sounding like his own father, Al, who founded the company. "Then pick lemons."

Before Interstate 95, Starbucks and Sbarro, roadside citrus stands like Al's lined nearly every major thoroughfare in Florida. They made buying local fun before the locavore food movement made it fashionable, but increasingly they are a dying breed.

Hundreds if not thousands of family citrus farms and their roadside stands have disappeared since the 1960s - victims of freezes and disease, highways that diverted customers, corporate consolidation, and the relentless pressure on growers to sell their land to developers. Since 1996, Florida has lost more than 200,000 acres of citrus land, according to state figures, mainly to homes that no longer sell like the oranges they replaced.

Only here, in the 90-mile bluff along the Indian River from Cocoa to Fort Pierce, can one find the last handful of citrus stores that offer the stickiness and tart scent that once defined the state.

The land gets part of the credit. It has been famous since 1835, when Douglas Dummett's plantation on Merritt Island survived a brutal freeze thanks to the nearby rivers that stabilized temperatures. Dummett also bred sweeter fruit - after the Civil War, his oranges commanded $1 more a box in New York than oranges from any other grove - and Indian River went on to become one of Florida's most famous farming brands.

Northerners like Roy and Blanche Harvey, who arrived in the area from Cleveland in the '20s, could hardly resist. Larry Harvey, their grand-nephew, said their family business started when Blanche picked a few oranges and started selling them on U.S. 1, then the main road running north and south. Now, at essentially the same location in Rockledge, Harvey's Groves is the last citrus shop around.

Like most of its counterparts further south, the store has a homeyness that comes from its white-painted barn and bins of fruit, its kitschy extras and from employees who have worked there for more than 20 years.

Harvey's displays braggadocio too. The giant orange in the green elfin costume on the roof and the large sign boasting of the "world's best orange juice" might as well be museum pieces for Florida hucksterism.

Although Harvey, 64, refuses to admit it. A leukemia survivor with a bushy mustache, he is the softer side of a management team that includes his brother, Jim. "World's best" is accurate, Larry Harvey insists, and as proof he showed off his shiny FMC extractor, a stainless steel juice machine that resembles a truck engine attached to rubber straws.

He said three types of oranges go in: tangerines, tangelos and golds. What pours out tastes fresher than what's in the average supermarket carton, he said, because of the blend, and the lack of pasteurization. "This is superchilled," he said. "It doesn't have the shelf life, but it tastes better."

Still, with a smirk, owners like Schorner acknowledge that the juice is half vanity project, half marketing gimmick. Even the stands are "merely showplaces," as John McPhee wrote in "Oranges," his book from 1967, because the bulk of the business comes from shipping gift boxes north.

This accounts for 80 percent of Harvey's sales. It's a similar proportion for the others. Basically, without orders placed through the stores, catalogues or the Internet, all these companies would be out of business.

The growers sell optimism, but sleep with fear. Harvey said there were 152 members of the Gift Fruit Shippers Association when his father helped start it in the late '40s. Now there are 37.

Economic ups and downs, of course, are not unfamiliar to the roadside citrus crowd.

And the current economic bust has brought a bonus: Schorner said a few former growers are returning to citrus after failing at real estate.

But if you ask the older owners what will happen next with their businesses, or how they've survived, you're likely to get a humble shrug. "It's my charm," said Ed Peterson, 73, whose family has been selling oranges from its grove in Vero Beach since 1923.

"No," said his brother and co-owner, Fred, 70, standing behind the counter in red shorts faded pink. "We've worked hard, that's what it is. We've refused to give up."

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