I have lived smack in the middle of orange grove central for three years now and I have finally gotten around to really exploring the citrus world. Citrus is huge in Florida – many of my friends work or have family members who work in the citrus industry. I’ll be honest, I never knew so many variations of citrus existed before living here! Sure, I knew there were a few types of oranges and lemons and grapefruits and so on… but never before have I encountered so much variety, including ones I have never heard of before, even when out in the wild simply hiking or walking!
My curiosity in learning more about citrus led me to a visit to the Florida’s Natural Orange visitor center. Here, one can take a look at the history of citrus in Florida and discover just how large and complex the industry is – there’s a lot more to it than just oranges!
The Florida’s Natural visitor center is located on route 27, southwest of Orlando by about an hour. They’re closed Memorial Day through the end of September, during the off season, so plan a trip during the “cooler” months! I went around midday during the middle of the week. Surprisingly, no one else was there! It was very quiet (but very nice that way!). There are different varieties of citrus growing around the visitor center property, so I browsed through them and was amazed at how many different kinds of oranges there are! Many are non-native, having been brought from other parts of the world, but I was surprised to learn that there was a unique local variety of orange, too.
Inside the center, there is a large gift shop that makes up the front of the building. Anything you can think of that could be “orange-ized” pretty much is. I tried some citrus flavored popcorn (it was really good!!) and sampled some of Florida Natural’s juices. The rear of the center is devoted to information exhibits about the history of citrus and the formation of Florida’s Natural.
The self-guided, walk-through tour gives visitors the chance to learn about all aspects of the citrus industry – from picking and boxing, to the effects of weather and how the growing seasons work. Florida’s Natural began as a co-op in 1933. Growers worked hard to develop methods to best pack and ship their crop and produce their juice, which used to only be canned juice and concentrate (non-concentrate didn’t come around until the 1980’s!). It amazed me how there was so much work that went into developing and building the wooden crates that oranges are famously seen in nowadays – it was the best way to pack the fruit without damaging it!
Since the citrus industry began, weather has always played a large role in the growing and harvesting of the fruit. There have been years where frost has virtually wiped out the season’s crop. I think many people don’t realize how damaging something like this really can be to an entire industry or business; for example, many local, smaller groves in Florida survive by selling their crop to larger citrus businesses, such as Florida’s Natural. If the local groves suffer crop loss from freezing temperatures or frost, their business is essentially lost for an entire portion of the year (and all the money that went into growing the citrus is wasted). Similarly, fires can just as easily decimate entire groves. And, in an extremely hot climate like Florida, groves are vulnerable to wildfire threats. It was really an eye-opening experience to learn about and consider all this information.
Florida’s Natural also focuses heavily on energy conservation. The visitor center, for example, receives its energy from solar panels. With entire groves exposed to sunlight, its easy to see how citrus and energy can go hand-in-hand. Even the watering systems for the groves have been worked and reworked to reduce water runoff and waste!
So the next time you reach for that cold glass of orange juice, consider where it all came from! I am very lucky to be surrounded by these wonderful orange groves on a daily basis and enjoy their (literal) fruits. Next time you find yourself in Florida, particularly in the Orlando (or even Tampa!) area, swing by Florida’s Natural for a look at the history of the citrus industry, a taste of their products, and a sample of the citrus-inspired goodies they have! You’ll be amazed at just simply how many varieties of citrus there are!