Essential Intelligence

The Incredible History and Uncertain Future of the Iconic Florida Orange

The citrus industry is in trouble, but the orange continues to symbolize the Sunshine State’s allure.

By Cooper Levey-Baker November 30, 2021 Published in the December 2021 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Florida orange groves

Florida orange groves

More than just a round fruit known for its tart, sweet juice and its intoxicating aroma, the orange was for decades the very symbol of Florida itself. Emblazoned on postcards sent home to shivering, jealous Northerners, images of boxes of oranges and orange groves depicted Florida as a bright, exotic land where you could pick your breakfast off the tree in your back yard. These days, the citrus industry is in trouble, but the orange continues to symbolize the Sunshine State’s allure.

Coming to America

Colonizers from Europe brought citrus seeds with them in the 1500s, and settlers later began planting orange groves and harvesting the fruit. When railroads connected the state to the rest of the country after the Civil War, the orange industry began to boom.

Cool Discovery

While Floridians enjoyed orange juice for centuries, the product wasn’t available to most Americans because the juice would degrade while in transit. But in 1948, researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Lakeland and Winter Haven patented a way of mixing orange juice concentrate and fresh juice and freezing the slushy mixture until it could be revived with fresh water at home.

Sweetness in a Box

For decades, shipping Florida oranges to loved ones was a popular vacation gift ritual, and you can still do it today. From November through April, Sarasota’s Albritton Fruit Company, Inc., ships boxes and baskets of citrus harvested in Sarasota and Central Florida.

Sour Power

For a taste of Old Florida, make a sour orange pie with sweetened condensed milk, egg whites and a graham cracker crust. Traditionally made with not-so-sweet wild oranges, the pie can easily be recreated with calamondins or by combining orange juice and lemon juice.

That’s a Lot of Juice

The orange juice maker Tropicana was founded in Bradenton in 1947, and today claims to purchase one-third of all the oranges grown in Florida, while also importing fruit from Brazil. Tropicana’s parent company PepsiCo recently sold the company to a European private equity firm for $3.3 billion.

Tough Times

The Florida Department of Citrus estimates that 80 percent of citrus trees in Florida are infected with Huanglongbing, the bacteria that causes citrus greening, which ruins a tree’s fruit. Largely because of the disease, the state’s orange crop during the 2020-2021 season (52.8 million boxes) was just over a third of what it was a decade prior (140.5 million boxes). Projections for a decade from now range from as high as 54.4 million boxes to as few as 37 million.

The Covid Bump

Sales of orange juice rose in 2020 after remaining mostly stable for years. Researchers said people were buying more juice in general because they were home more and were picking orange juice because it contains so much vitamin C, which boosts your immune system.

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