Frozen OJ fresh from the tree

Published 2:41 pm Friday, January 8, 2010

Floridians may not need to purchase their frozen concentrated orange juice at the grocery store this weekend, instead they may have the opportunity to pick it frozen fresh from the tree.

Hear of freeze in Florida this time of year, and citrus growers begin thinking about protecting their $9.3 billion industry from ending up on the trash heap.

With the current cold snap, temperatures predicted 20 degrees below normal and more this weekend, and the national news focusing on dangers to the Florida citrus crop, these signs dredge up memories of freezes past.

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In the 1950s, and earlier, when citrus growers knew a hard freeze was predicted, they would drag out the smudge pots, smoky kerosene heaters placed among the citrus trees to keep temperatures as moderate as possible and crops from being destroyed.

You could always tell the smudge pots were in bloom due to the heavy black smoky gloom languishing over the landscape.

Today, they turn on sprinklers, covering trees and crops with a coating of ice, which holds in the warmer temperatures and keeps destruction at a minimum.

We have an old 8 mm film in our family archives, of a visit Faye and I made to the Citrus Tower near Clermont in Central Florida. The visit was in the 1960s, BC (before children) and we romped among the orange trees, picking a few fruits, then climbing the citrus tower (I can’t remember its height) where we photographed acres and acres of citrus groves seen in all directions. (My, how terribly young we looked even on that scratchy 8 mm film).

Sometime in the early 1980s, while we were living in the West, we remembered reading about the devastating freeze in Florida, which destroyed not only the crop that year, but also large amounts of acreage of citrus trees.

Coming back to Florida in 1987, and driving through Lake County again, there amid the barren rolling fields of central Florida, stood the lonely Citrus Tower, void of any surrounding trees of any kind as far as one could see.

The freeze of the early ’80s zapped every living citrus tree in a several-county, central Florida area, leaving speculation that maybe they could use the land for new housing developments. Touring down through that area today, one sees that’s what they did.

Citrus growers today are predicting minimal damage to this year’s crop, somewhere around 10 percent. Farmers in Central Florida also are carefully watching the strawberry crop, a big agricultural industry around Tampa and Plant City. I could never understand why such a delicate fruit as the strawberry only ripened in winter. Strange.

We spent about four years in Lakeland, AC, (after children), and had a neat house next to an orange grove. There were plans to develop the grove into a residential subdivision, so for several years before development began, the trees bloomed, the oranges matured, then harvested themselves by falling then rotting on the ground.

Wandering into the grove at harvest time with the AC (after children) we gathered as much fruit as possible, squeezing gallons and gallons of fresh citrus juice for our own consumption. Yum yum. Nothing better.

There’s also nothing better in Florida this time of the year than driving by the citrus processing plants and breathing in that sweet orange juice aroma. Yum yum.

Citrus growers report about 25 percent of the crop is in, showing minimal damage thus far. But freeze warnings are out for this weekend, with temperatures in our part of Southwest Georgia predicted to be in the teens on Sunday and Monday mornings.

So keep warm. Cover the delicate yard plants. Bring in the pets. Sit by the fire and wait for spring.