As Greening Battle Continues, Florida Citrus Growers Turn to Hardy Lemons as Alternative
by PAUL CATALA
When it comes to Florida citrus, naval, valencia and hamlin oranges come to mind while Ruby Red, flame and Thompson grapefruits are common names. But other citrus names are often overlooked: Harvey, Bearss and Eureka, for example.
Those are names of some of the main commercial lemon variety types grown in Florida and more specifically around Central Florida and Polk County.
In 2019, lemons were produced on about 214 acres of groves in Florida. And since 2016, one of those groves has been maintained and cultivated by Dundee lemon grower Joe Garrison.
Garrison, 49, is a lifelong resident of Dundee and is also the owner and founder of Garrison Land Management Inc. of Dundee, specializing in lawn maintenance, landscaping, wells, pest control and other yard care services. He also owns Garrison Property Services, an HOA and condominium management company.
On about 75 acres of lemon and orange trees Garrison owns off Watkins Road in Haines City, approximately 55 acres and 9,000 trees are his Harvey lemons. He says he’s in the process of buying more grove acreage.
Harvey lemons were named for Harvey Smith of Clearwater, who found the lemon on the Clearwater property of George James in the late 1940s. They were entered into the United States Department of Agriculture Citrus ID Program in 1964 and are of “unknown parentage,” according to that program.
The son of Robert and Jewel, both now deceased, Garrison, 49, says his father worked the orange groves of Haines City and Dundee and his mother was employed by Bordo Citrus Products in citrus concentrate. He says he “grew up poor” but was able to learn a lot about the industry from his parents.
“We didn’t have much, but I was very blessed in life,” says Garrison, a 1991 graduate of Haines City High School. “I grew up around citrus and it has always been a dream to have citrus groves. I was blessed enough to have a good business that I was able to have this property.”
Garrison’s first venture in crop cultivation was growing peaches on 10 acres, which he said “didn’t do well.”
Standing in the grove garage on a recent September weekday, Garrison explains that in the 1960s and 1970s, cold fronts wiped out a lot of Central and South Florida citrus, but the cold-hardy Harvey lemons in Clearwater were able to survive.
Garrison says in 2011, Gilbert Bowen—president and owner of Bowen Brothers Inc., citrus fruits wholesale in Eloise—introduced him to Harvey lemons. He learned of their ability to withstand cold and not to succumb to citrus greening, which got him interested in farming them.
“I wasn’t making any money with the peaches. (Bowen) supported the lemons and visited one of his groves and they looked so good so I bought some trees from Gilbert,” says Garrison.
Initially, Garrison bought 1,400 Harvey lemon trees in addition to approximately 3,000 orange trees. Harveys are mostly seedless, mildly tart and can be planted early February to late November, pruned early March to mid-July and harvested September to mid-March.
Bowen began growing Harvey lemons about 35 years ago in groves across the state when canker began affecting oranges in the 1980s. At one time, had about 400 acres of lemons in Babson Park during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“It got so hard to get them picked and the price was down, so we sold that land,” he adds. “They were just so thorny back in those days.”
Now living east of Dundee, Bowen no longer owns lemon acreage but has friends who grow lemons on his ranch. He says he guided Garrison into lemons because they’re less susceptible to canker and greening, and he thinks lemons are gaining a foothold in Polk.
“You got enough fruit to make it grow; you can’t grow anything if you don’t have any fruit. So, right now they’re in-between. They got a little bit of taste of lemon, but to have an industry, you have to have a lot of fruit,” he says. “There is a big demand for lemon, but we’re going through this pandemic now. I think there’s still a good future for it.”
Florida Fruits and Nuts data from the USDA-National Agricultural Statistics Service Southern Region Florida Field Office’s Census of Agriculture is taken every five years. That census showed 56 Florida lemon groves on 77 acres in 2012 and 217 on 272 acres by 2017, the last year it was taken.
However, Steve Callaham, Executive Vice President and CEO of the Dundee Citrus Growers Association says those numbers have most likely greatly increased. He said revenue figures for lemons in the county aren’t yet compiled due to many trees being young and not producing and lemons aren’t yet in “significant commercial production.”
“But it’s coming,” he says. “What’s happening with citrus greening is growers are looking to plant varieties that seem to tolerate greening better than others and lemons are one variety that does well in citrus greening and just grows through it. A lot of new acreage in lemons has just taken place in the last few years.”
Callaham says Garrison is on the forefront of the growth spurt in Polk County lemon growing and harvesting and is highly driven to make his crops profitable.
“I think with Joe (Garrison), he’s extremely hardworking and he does the majority of the work himself; it’s refreshing to see someone with his work ethic and go out there with so much pride to plant a new lemon grove in a first-class manner,” he says.
Acreage in Florida specialty citrus fruit, which includes true lemons and other citrus acreage, was 1,345 acres in 2017-18, according to Florida Citrus Statistics by the Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services.
The USDA Natural Agricultural Statistic Service indicates of the 214 acres of lemons in Florida, 107 of them were bearing acres. Polk County and other county statistics were not disclosed, with the exception of St. Lucie County, which has 154 of the 214 acres.
“Lemons do not make up a large enough portion of the acreage or value of the citrus industry in Florida to be included in the annual report on economic contributions of the citrus industry,” adds Christa Court, assistant scientist with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science’s Food and Resource Economics Department, Gainesville.
The U.S. is the fifth-biggest lemon and lime producer in the world after Mexico, Argentina, the European Union and Turkey. Acreage in Florida specialty citrus fruit, which includes true lemons and other citrus acreage, was 1,345 acres in 2017-18, according to Florida Citrus Statistics by the Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services.