For decades, the Sunshine State has led the way in production of oranges and other citrus fruits. Much of the state’s success can be attributed not only to the ideal weather conditions, but to the dedication and quality of its producers.
Mike Houghtaling knows what it’s like to sacrifice in the name of great citrus. One day while picking oranges for the fruit stand at his grandfather’s farm, then-15-year-old Houghtaling felt a stinging sensation on his legs. “It was as if the fire ants said, ‘Okay, everybody: One, two, three, bite,’” he recalls. “And I looked down and my blue pants were completely covered in brown. So I went in the grove, stripped down and knocked them all off.”
Not one to let a few ants, or anything else, deter him, Mike and his wife, Diane, have continued the family legacy at Dooley Groves in Ruskin for the past 50 years. Mike’s great-great-grandfather moved there from Michigan just after the Civil War and planted a small grove. In the 1960s, Mike’s grandmother, Edith, began giving the fruit away to neighbors and church members in an effort to spread the word and launch a simple U-pick business. At one point, four generations worked side by side on the property.
In 2010, Mike and Diane planted a new grove with about 6,500 Honeybells, a large, brightly colored, bell-shaped variety, along with tangelos and about 2,000 tangerine trees, and reopened for customer picking. “And suddenly, we became the largest U-pick Honeybell grove in the state of Florida,” Diane says. “We had no idea that anybody was even going to come, and suddenly we were overwhelmed with people.”
The reinvented grove now spans 40 acres, with a retail store that sells candies, marmalade, local honey, freshly squeezed orange juice and other items. It also includes a gift-fruit shipping business and a thriving U-pick operation that draws patrons from 100 miles away, starting on “Orange Friday” (the day after Thanksgiving) and running through April. The Houghtalings also grow Sugar Belles, seedless Tango tangerines and about 10 other varieties, including gigantic Ponderosa lemons and pink pomelos (Chinese grapefruit).
In keeping with COVID-19 precautions, they’ve modified the guided tours, but their message remains the same. “We want people to be educated,” Diane says. “So many children these days have no idea where their food comes from. We want them to know that, yes, this grows on trees. This is how it works.”
One comment you might not expect to hear from a farmer is, “COVID was the biggest blessing we could’ve had.”
But that’s exactly what Mary Graham, who co-owns Graham Farms in Umatilla with her husband, Michael, says about the heightened interest in the grove. Last year, although the oranges had already come and gone, the peaches began ripening in mid-April, around the time the strict lockdown was starting to lift.
“The week before we opened, Gov. (Ron) DeSantis told people that they needed to get outside and get some sunshine,” Mary says. “People were dying to get out of the house. They wanted something to do. And we have plenty of acreage and plenty of space for people to social distance.”
Mary and Michael, a fourth-generation citrus grower, currently farm about 20 acres next to the original 1819 parcel, raising Honeybells and Red Navels for juicing and eating at their U-pick operation. Their two daughters help out seasonally.
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The Grahams are still harvesting from a grove Michael’s dad acquired in the 1970s. “Honeybells have the perfect blend of sweet and citrus tang, and the Red Navel is one of the sweetest oranges on the market,” Mary says. “We also bring in tangerines from another grove that we lease, available as pre-picked.”
The grove typically yields fruit from mid-November to early January. The Grahams also grow peaches, an alternate crop they realized grew well after planting 300 UFOne cultivar trees in 2014 when the damaging citrus greening disease started sweeping central Florida. To give back to the community, they also launched the Pick a Peck, Give a Peck program, in which each customer who picks a peck of peaches for the local food bank or afterschool program can pick a peck for themselves at half price. The farmers now give away about 2,000 pounds of the fuzzy fruit each year.
In 2019, they added U-pick wildflowers and sunflowers to their offerings, since peach season is so short. Graham Farms also hosts weddings and parties in an open-air barn overlooking the lake, and professional photographers often snap portraits in the beautiful fields.
Graham recalls the socially distanced customers who kept her family busy last spring. “It was nice to see people get out and families laughing and having a good time and enjoying themselves,” she says. “One couple sat in the two rocking chairs side by side, literally for hours, just relaxing and enjoying the sunshine and fresh air.”