Nestled along Lake Okeechobee’ssoutheastern edge, the Ericksons farm in the midst of some of the world’s best soil for growing sugar cane and winter vegetables. So, why do they focus their efforts on fruit — and rather unusual fruit, at that?

As Dale Erickson sees things, it boils down to achieving efficiencies on the family’s land at Canal Point, Fla.

“Why grow the same thing on 60 acres that somebody just down the road is growing on thousands of acres?” he says.

With their comparatively small acreage, the Ericksons choose not to compete with the area’s traditional crops. Rather, they stick to higher value, intensive management crops and personally handle the marketing.

Their plan succeeds well enough that the family’s fourth generation of south Florida farmers now works enthusiastically on the land, sticking with it through ruinous hurricanes, droughts and whatever else Mother Nature throws at them.

When Dale’s grandparents, Alfred and Elfrida Erickson, moved here from Sweden in 1911, Lake Okeechobee still had a natural shoreline. Their home sat near the lakefront. The killer hurricane that presaged construction of the Herbert Hoover Dike would come 17 years later.

In the early days, people living in this area were not only pioneers, but were also isolated from the rest of society. They traveled in boats. Before the canal to the East Coast was built, in order to get to the county seat to do legal business, the Ericksons had to travel west across Lake Okeechobee, then to Fort Myers, and finally onward by boat all the way to Palm Beach.

Alfred Erickson had a knack for finding a way to make a living. He grew amaryllis and sold them by mail order. He became a carpenter and built houses that are still occupied today, along with the local school and hotel. He was an early-day county agent, and ran a commercial fishing operation on the big lake.

When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, hard on the heels of the big storm that ravaged the area, Alfred Erickson began farming in a serious way. His sons Floyd and William farmed with him, growing winter vegetables like sweet corn, beans, pepper, squash and tomatoes. Floyd, educated at the University of Florida, had an interest in tropical fruit from around the world. He began farming on his own in 1961, and by the late 1960s had established groves of mango and avocado trees.

In 1972, Dale came home from college and began farming alongside his father. “Dad saw that you couldn’t make a living on the 26 acres he had then if you were growing crops like green beans, sweet corn or sugar cane,” he says.

The family had fruit trees on the place for many years and knew they would grow in the rich muck soil.

“I assume things then were much like they are now,” says Kim, who with her sister, Krista, does much of the farm’s management these days. “Land acquisition is not the easiest thing. I don’t know if it was a Swedish thing or more of a personal thing, but whatever it was, Grandfather Floyd was obsessed with tropical fruit.” 

Avocados got most of Floyd Erickson’s attention for quite a few years. That came to an end when the Army Corps of Engineers raised the lake level, effectively drowning the trees.

Can't stand wet feet

“They can’t stand wet feet,” Krista says. “Almost all of them died, although we have quite a few avocados on our ridge right now. So, we switched to mangoes — they can handle the water.”

Mangoes and other tropical fruits and vegetables the Ericksons grow thrive here. They say the nearby lake creates a microclimate that warms their place and makes freezes rare.

“When there are cold fronts, 95 percent of the time they come from the northwest, over the lake, and that brings our temperature up,” Dale says. “We’ll usually be 8 degrees higher than is forecast by the alerts from the Homestead tropical research stations. We also have under-tree irrigation that creates fog in the canopy and holds the heat.”

However, the rare storms with wind from the east pound their tropical trees. The entire family remembers one that hit Christmas Eve, 1989.

“That’s the only white Christmas in my entire life,” Kim says. “We had been running overhead irrigation, and ice froze on the trees. It was a memorable Christmas — cold as all get-out, but something to remember.”

Being able to withstand most weather events gave the Ericksons confidence to expand into a wide variety of tropical fruit. Mangoes, with 40 acres of trees in production, remain their main crop. But they also grow carambola, sapodilla longan, lychee, papaya and a wide variety of vegetables.

“We grow about 45 varieties of mangoes and are constantly changing varieties,” Dale says. “There are at least 1,000 named mango cultivars around the world, so there are a lot to try. We did fairly well with mangoes until about 1995, when the North American Free Trade Agreement dropped the tariffs and imported mangoes just about wiped us out.

“By 2000, we were pretty well out of the mango business — we were removing them by the truckload. Then we stopped growing mangoes that won’t ship and started changing the operation over. Every year we find new varieties and try them.”

The better-shipping mangoes changed plenty for the Ericksons.

“We ripen them on the tree, which gives them better flavor and less fiber,” Dale says. “Imported mangoes are picked up to 42 days before they ripen, which doesn’t help their taste. Plus, in those shipping containers, the temperature gets dropped to 34 degrees. A mango can’t stand temperatures below 55, so the skin burns.

“Our mangoes just taste better — being ripened on the tree makes a big difference. The old varieties would ripen and drop. These don’t. They ripen and over a three- or four-day period, and we’ve got time to pick. These mangoes are sweeter, too. Their Brix is about 18 or 20, compared to 14 for other mangoes. We have one variety that goes to 22 Brix, which makes the taste a whole lot better.”

Dale thinks mangoes could be poised for an image boost in the minds of many American consumers. Mango flavoring, natural or not, is being used in a number of products ranging from shampoo to candles.

Raises awareness

“All of that raises awareness, and that’s good,” he says. “There is a lot of potential for new mango uses — look at all the different fruit-flavored drinks we’re seeing now. We even see mangoes showing up on the Food Network.

“It’s a matter of awareness and getting people to try them. That’s why I’m an advocate for improving the quality of mango imports, if we hold the imports to the same food safety standards that we U.S. producers have to deal with. Get the fruit tasting good, then take them into stores and give them out free to familiarize people with mangoes.

“Different varieties have different tastes, but most people don’t know that. American consumers are starting to learn that certain things have flavor. It’s the beginning of a trend. Of course, we believe strongly that our mangoes have the best taste.”

The Ericksons are working to develop value-added mango products. Kim is experimenting with mango preserves and jams, and recently sold some.

“We want something we can sell in the off season,” she says. “It’s a way to get rid of the aesthetically ugly fruit that would be difficult to sell at retail, but otherwise has nothing wrong. At times of the year we have too many mangoes, so we’re looking for ways to extend the season.”

Frozen mangoes have potential, as well, Kim says. “A mango can be used for anything you can use a peach for. I eat more frozen mangoes than fresh ones — chop them up, throw them in the freezer, and you can eat them year-round.”

Of course, growing great-tasting fruit that originated in far-off places can be easier than selling it. Marketing is where the Ericksons excel, moving their products to some unusual buyers far from sunny south Florida. Their biggest wholesale customers are in New York and Chicago. The consumers in New York are mostly Asian, those in Chicago predominately Hindu. A Miami distributor also moves some of their fruit and vegetables.

“We’ve been very fortunate with markets,” Kim says. “Some wholesale clients have been our customers for decades and some, really, for my entire life.

“They’ve become friends, and they come down here and visit us. They have family businesses — they’re cool. We never worry about payment; we work out a price prior to growing the product. We know what they want us to grow. They want quality, and they want it fresh, and that’s what we give them.”

Transportation is key to shipping quality products. A truck picks up the Ericksons’ products at 1 a.m. and pulls into Chicago about a day and a half later. We have an awesome trucker,” Krista says. “He’s a friend now, too; he understands what we need to do.”

For several years, curry leaves bought by Hindus were the Ericksons’ second biggest moneymaker, right behind mangoes. They moved as much as 350 pounds of curry leaves weekly to Chicago, New York and Atlanta. But after citrus greening disease hit the state’s orange and grapefruit groves, out-of-state shipments of curry leaves were halted due to the possibility of their carrying the disease.

“This was really disappointing because curry was quite a sustaining part of our income,” Kim says. “We still have quite a bit of curry. We’re just waiting to see what happens. We don’t want to pull it all out.”

They also sell paan leaves to Indian and Southeast Asian markets. It is touted as a palate cleanser, breath freshener and digestive aid, often chewed at ceremonies.

“A lot of older people use paan as a spice,” Kim says. “They crave it, almost. The older generation has to have it — they buy it to use in festivals.”

Shipped to Hindus

About 100 pounds of the Ericksons’ mango leaves are shipped weekly to Hindus, who make garlands out of them and hang them outside temples, houses and other buildings.

“We already have the trees, so why not?” Krista says. “We’re also now wholesaling fenugreek to the Hindu market. It’s used as a spice; the leaves are eaten with vegetable dishes. India grows most of the world’s fenugreek, but it’s a growing market for us. The way things worked out for us, mangoes led to curry, and curry led to everything else.”

During mango season, the Ericksons operate an on-farm roadside stand geared toward individual buyers. They will sell one mango at a time or a truckload. Some retail customers have been buying there for several generations.

“People know us and feel they’re family,” Krista says. “We send out a letter at the end of the season, thanking them for their business. They’ll write us, thanking us for being around all this time. We also have 400 customers for whom we do ripe mango shipments. Of those, we probably personally know 200.”

In 2007, they tapped into the local food movement with their vegetable business, selling to green markets, restaurants and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) customers who are members of a buying club. In a real sense, this business took the family back to the future. The vegetables are planted with a push planter and each row is carefully maintained.

“We tend to grow things a lot of people don’t grow on their own: beets, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, kale, Swiss chard, things like that — no corn, no green beans,” Kim says.

“After the hurricanes that hit us several years ago, we had a lot of damage to our fruit trees, and decided we had to get into vegetables. If a hurricane wipes them out, that isn’t good, but at least we don’t have the investment in them that we do in trees, and we can get back into production pretty fast.”

That experience has made them big supporters of the local ag movement.

“The more local you can get, the better off you are,” Krista says. “We’ve been very blessed to have the market options we have. I think starting local is the first step now — start local first, then move on to bigger markets, if you want to do that.

“People really are starting to look at where their food comes from. If they’re in New York or Philadelphia, they want apples that came from up there, not Argentina or Chile. People in West Palm Beach want food that comes from this area, if they can get it.”

If Alfred and Elfrida Erickson appeared on the lakeside farm today, the technology and machinery would no doubt amaze them, and they doubtless would be proud of how Dale, Kim and Krista have carried on the family tradition.

Krista started working with her father right after graduating from high school. Kim attended Penn State University and spent nine years in Pennsylvania before returning home.

“This is not just a business — it’s home,” Kim says. “We both find it very draining to be away from here. Growing up, we didn’t go to summer camp. We sold mangoes. You could say we did internships on the farm.”

Krista agrees: “Our strength comes from the muck.”