The Nature Coast Citrus Business

Gift fruit is a term used to describe locally grown citrus that has been washed, waxed, sorted and packed for shipment to someone who doesn’t live in the Sunshine State. At several times throughout the last century or so, Florida’s Nature Coast has been an integral part of this delicious business.

Saint Joe is home to the Kumquat Growers and is known as the kumquat capital of the world. Dade City was home to the Pasco Packing Company, the largest citrus processing plant in the 1940s and holds an Annual Kumquat Festival the last Saturday of January each year.

Ferris Groves in Floral City began in the 1930s, with ‘Doc’ Ferris buying Duval Island and planting citrus trees when his golf course community for retired millionaires fell through. Ferris Groves still grows and sells gift fruit today, but they specialize in Ferris Berries, delicious strawberries grown on that same fertile soil. Floral City holds a Strawberry Festival each March.

Picking oranges in Ferris Grove – Floral City, Florida

In the first half of the twentieth century, Florida citrus was prized for its vitamin C content and health benefits, as well as its sweet flavor and juicy texture. The northeastern U.S. population wanted lots of fresh, flavorful Florida citrus.

In fact, “the Orange Belt railroad went through Dade City, and the idea was to plant citrus as far north as possible to load onto the trains headed to the northerners. The farmers were going to get rich,” Kathy Oleson of Boyett’s Grove and Citrus Attraction shared with me, “Then the cars came and it didn’t turn out to be quite as much of a big thing.”

The Orange Belt Railroad went through Dade City. In the early 1900s, farmers would grow as far north as possible to get the fruit north. Photo by Robert E. Dahlgren, courtesy of Florida Memory.

Kathy’s father, L.E. (Lee) Boyett, bought this property at 4355 Spring Lake Highway in the 1950s-1960s. Previously, he was a marine contractor who built sea docks on Treasure Island. After purchasing the property in partnership with some relatives, he ended up buying them out and becoming a citrus farmer. About 25 acres of the land they bought was planted with citrus trees from the late 1800s.

His home was right where the Attraction and Citrus processing business is today. The area was so rural that Kathy and her sisters rode their horse around the huge oak tree that welcomes visitors today. In fact, that tree was around when Ponce de Leon came to Florida.

An oak tree that has been on this property since Ponce de Leon set foot in La Florida greets visitors.

When Kathy was a young lady, she would work at the fruit stand, helping travelers pick the perfect fruit for their trip home. “I would ask them if they planned on eating the fruit on the way home or if they were going to keep it until they arrived,” Kathy explains, “and based on their answers I would help them choose the right fruit for their needs. This is what we have built our gift fruit business on.”

Kathy knows her fruit. “People think you can just pick the fruit and pack it in boxes for shipping, but there is a lot more to it than meets the eye. Fruit needs to be the right size, the right firmness to be sweet but not prone to rot, there are indicators of possible pests and some fruit may have been late bloom so it won’t get sweet. All these things go into each box we ship.

Only about 40% of the fruit that is washed makes it into the gift fruit box due to quality control.”

You can choose your own fruit at the grove. People got used to stopping at roadside stands and they would just grab the fruit and put it in a bag. By the time they got home it was mush. Here we help the customer pick the right fruit to meet their needs. They can choose their own.

With all the new issues; greening versus re-green, citrus canker and the myriad of other problems citrus farmers face, it will come down to knowing how to choose the good fruit.

The citrus industry has been a staple of Florida’s economy since the nineteenth century. Today’s growers often diversify to stay in the business.

Fruit that suffers from greening does not mature properly. The older trees have a certain percentage of fruit that doesn’t ripen properly so it doesn’t get sweet.

Over the years, citrus farmers have been forced to look for ways to keep their business alive while the fruit crop shrinks. Kathy and Jim Oleson have ventured into an entirely different direction that reaches the same tourist market. “First we added the Honey Bee Shop, where we packaged and sold locally grown orange blossom and wildflower honey, jars of jelly, coconut patties and other items that we offered in the gift fruit boxes. We had a little walkway into the grove for visitors to enjoy,” Kathy shared.

The Gift Shop was added to feature coconut patties, jams and jellies that were shipped with the gift fruit.

That’s how the animal park got started. Jim’s cousin was moving, and they had a Coatamundi. The cousin just showed up with this animal in a crate and said they were leaving and we had to take care of it or it would go to the pound. It was really unforeseen, you know? But our customers were really enjoying looking at the little guy and they would feed it sweet potatoes and it seemed to make everyone happy so Jim said he could build it a nice enclosure on the walkway and people could feed it sweet potatoes.

“That was the beginning of the animal park, and people just kept giving us animals. Most of our animals are donated. They wouldn’t have a home otherwise,” Kathy said, “We take care of the animals and their former owners can come back and visit them any time.”

Enjoy the Dinosaur Room, Mini Golf, Ice Cream Parlor or Gift Shop – and the Animal Park – these are some of the ways that the Olesons have diversified to survive the citrus industry roller coaster.

Over the years, the animal park has expanded. Today there are zebra donkeys and a camel, as well as wallabies and emus. Eventually, Boyett’s Grove Citrus added “and Timeless Attraction” to its nomenclature.

Every summer, the Olesons added a little more to the attraction. First, more gift shop for orange blossom perfume and shell mobiles. A shed to keep out of the rain, a wall to keep everyone warm in packing season. Summers are for creative building at Boyett’s. An alligator wrestling pit never materialized, but it has been converted into a huge aquarium that will eventually hold sharks.

The 2016 summer project included muralizing the 5,000 + square foot building that houses Boyett’s Grove Citrus & Timeless Attraction

 

An enclosed aviary, a snake room, a pirate room, a dinosaur cave and the newest addition, a family putt-putt golf course. And always with a family focus: the Oleson’s oldest son, James, is a renowned artist and a gallery of his work is part of the attraction. And an ice cream parlor, and a Wild West party room.

But, back to the fruit. Citrus is available fresh from October to May at Boyett’s.

During prime “fruit season,” from October through February, you will find the Oleson family washing and waxing fruit daily on machinery they have been using just for that purpose for nearly 50 years. This family gets up early and goes out into the grove to pick fruit that is just right for its trip up north or out west so that it always arrives ready to enjoy. A perfect gift.

If you would like to visit Boyett’s Grove for delicious, fresh Florida citrus, stop by their place any day of the week between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. To ship fruit to loved ones, you can call or stop by. To find out more, click here.