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.