Meet me at the barn,” says Scott Young — and just about everyone around Alturas, Fla., knows about his family’s barn.
It has hosted many a party for Polk County folks and been the setting for political benefits, Miss U.S.A. contestant practices, and serious discussions of citrus industry issues.
His father, Leland, built it three decades ago, never intending it to be the usual farm barn full of hay and cows. He quickly filled it with an eclectic collection of agricultural antiques, car tags, doodads of all sorts, family mementoes and autographed photos of governors, senators, members of Congress and other bigwigs, many pictured with Young family members.
Their office is inside, in a corner, but Scott pulls up an old wooden chair in the shade of the barn and sits looking straight at a grove of orange trees that he knows like a good rancher knows his cattle. He is the third generation of his family to grow citrus on this place.
“I’ve been doing this all my life,” he says. “I guess that’s like saying I’m a stumbling dinosaur — but we always make it. The ones who stay with it in this business are tough old nuts.
“We’re not like row crop farmers; we can’t plow our mistakes back underground. I love this business; I love seeing that first load of fruit go to the plant. It’s a feeling that’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t done it.”
The Youngs have an instinctive feel for all facets of the citrus business, he says.
His father and both grandfathers worked for Pasco Packing Co., in Dade City, growing fruit as well as harvesting and packing it. His mother says she learned to count at a young age by tallying credits for fruit pickers.
Scott’s parents, Leland and Wanda, are still active in the 400-acre business. He knows, however, that it is a much different business than when his father was a young man.
Must wear many hats
He says today’s citrus grower still should be able to break down a diesel engine, find the problem and put it back together. But, in addition to that, the 21st century grower has to know his way around the Internet and also understand the exotic pests that threaten Florida’s citrus industry.
“Any old-time citrus grower can tell you that there have been a lot of hills and valleys in this business,” Scott says. “Anybody with a weak constitution, this isn’t the business for them. You have to live with your mistakes year after year. You have to keep an eye on the weather all the time.”
“It can be 85 degrees one day and 18 the next — that scares us. On a cold night, you bet everything you own. We could have an Alberta Clipper come through here when the trees bloom out, and there goes all next season. The 1989 freeze changed this area permanently. I went out the next morning and couldn’t believe it. Everything was gone.
“Hurricanes scare us, too. We’re the closest postal ZIP code to where three major hurricanes hit in 2004. We had a lot of damage from that. Trees that were borderline were really torn up; those that weren’t healthy didn’t make it. It cost us a lot of money, plus the rehab costs. We had standing water where we hadn’t seen it for 40 years.”
He says tough times like those made him “a fatalist.”
“We can only do so much; it’s anybody’s ballgame. We do all we can — but we don’t call the shots. We’re at the mercy of the elements. When we lose the next season’s crop, we have choices to make. We can raid our emergency fund, if we have one. We can sell a grove. Whatever we’ve got to do to make it, that’s what we do.”
He blames one of those hurricanes for spreading citrus canker disease throughout the state’s citrus-producing area. It remains a scary disease, he says.
Then, even scarier citrus greening disease, spread by a tiny insect, the Asian citrus psyllid, hit a couple of years later.
Greening puts canker on back burner
“Canker is bad but greening looks a lot worse,” Scott says. “Young trees die before they bear fruit. Older trees shed fruit and die. We were worked up about canker, but greening kind of put canker on the back burner.”
Greening will test growers’ mettle, he says, particularly on the Ridge, the famed old citrus-producing area where his groves are located.
“There are a lot of 20-acre to 40-acre groves here that were bought up for housing developments, then abandoned after the housing bust. We don’t have an effective quarantine system here. These abandoned groves are a real problem. The psyllids aren’t controlled in them; then they come out into our groves. It’s a tough one.
“Our costs are way up because of greening. We’re jacking up the fertilizer, pumping nutrients to the trees to keep them producing. That’s key. Greening is whippable, and we’ll do it. There are a lot of smart people in this industry. We’ve whipped everything else that has been a problem, and we’ll whip greening eventually.”
The Youngs market their fruit through Haines City Citrus Growers Association, a cooperative, which in turn markets juice oranges through Florida’s Natural, headquartered in Lake Wales.
This year, Florida’s Natural celebrated its 25th anniversary as a brand, though its owner, Citrus World, traces its lineage back to 1930, when six growers formed Ridge Citrus Canners Corp.
Part of Florida’s Natural high profile marketing plan is to feature its growers on the juice carton. Leland and Wanda Young were on a carton a few years back, telling the story of their family’s farm.
“This has worked out very well for us. We’re not members of an international conglomerate. We may not always get the highest price, but we’ve got a home with Haines City and Florida’s Natural.
“That’s important to us. We’re home folks, no different from most Midwestern farmers, except we grow citrus. Here in Polk County, at least in our area, this is really the Old South. This is Baja Georgia — that’s a good way of putting it.
“I think consumers want to know where their food is coming from. They’re sick and tired of so-called American products being made overseas. Be an American patriot — support your country; buy American. We’re in control of the breakfast of champions right here locally.
“Every chance I get, I bring home the fact that Florida’s Natural is a co-op, owned by growers, marketing our own product,” Young says. “People don’t have to put up with the big international conglomerates. Citrus is all we do, so we have to do it right the first time.”