© 2023 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
WUSF Public Media is honored to host the Florida edition of NPR’s Next Generation Radio, a workshop for college students and new journalists. Here we highlight their work — audio and digital stories about the experiences of Floridians affected by issues ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change. These stories were produced in partnership with NPR and WUSF Public Media. Our reporters are students and recent graduates in Florida.

Through freezes and diseases, citrus grower’s identity springs from the soil

Fourth-generation Central Florida citrus grower Eddie White has seen urbanization and citrus disease threaten the industry and his way of life, but he honors his heritage by running his family’s grove in new ways.

Illustration of a man holding a barrel and chasing falling oranges under a tree
Yunyi Dai
/
Next Generation Radio
Man looking into the distance with citrus trees in the background
Marian Summerall
/
Next Generation Radio
Eddie White stands among his citrus trees at Red Hill Groves on a sunny Florida afternoon on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023. He looks into a future for the citrus industry that’s clouded by threats from invasive diseases and rapid urbanization that continues to turn groves into acres of subdivisions and shopping centers.

Eddie White, 64, is president of Red Hill Groves, a citru farm that has been in his family for four generations. But since the 1970s, White has watched a steady host of changes and problems – including rapid urbanization, multiple freezes and invasive diseases – diminish the citrus industry in Florida and his own family’s citrus acreage. Despite these challenges, his business means a lot to him, and his property is a special place for him and his family.

“It’s the little slice of Florida that we have left. There’s not many places like this left, and I just can’t imagine living anywhere else,” White said.

Red Hill Groves in Sanford, just north of Orlando, is an emerald isle of disappearing rural life surrounded by rising subdivisions and four-lane highways bustling with traffic. In addition to rows of citrus trees bearing oranges, grapefruit and tangerines, chickens scratch and peck at their feed and strawberries grow in warm greenhouses. A tractor barn filled with family and agricultural memorabilia also serves as a retail hub where the White family sells oranges, jams, jellies, honey, candies, freshly squeezed orange juice and Southern barbeque.

White has been picking oranges since his youth and says his fingernails are still dirty from planting trees over the years. He was introduced to citrus by his father, William White, 90.

“It’s home,’’ William White said, reflecting on the farm and its history. “The grove means a great deal to us. It is the makings of a seedling citrus grove that was here in 1902.’’

Hand with a band-aid on a finger reaching in to grab an orange
Marian Summerall
/
Next Generation Radio
At his barn and packing house in Sanford, Florida, on Jan. 2, 2023, Eddie White sorts oranges to be packed and sold. His hands show his years of working in the soil growing oranges in Central Florida. “My fingernails are still dirty from planting trees,’’ White said.

On a warm, sunny January day – the kind that makes people in snowy Milwaukee and Buffalo wish they lived here – Eddie White walks through his groves looking at some of his stunted orange trees while hearing the cars zoom by on the roads around him.

Florida’s citrus industry has changed drastically over the last few decades. Invasive diseases such as citrus canker and citrus greening have damaged groves all over the state and caused many to dwindle. Orange trees that are diseased are also known to produce lower quality fruit.

The White family once had about 40 acres of citrus groves spread out across Seminole, Orange and Brevard counties; however, eight acres remain today. It’s a snapshot of a larger picture in Florida – a state historically associated with oranges – where 857,687 acres were planted in citrus statewide in 1996, but as of September 2022, only 375,302 acres remain, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual citrus inventory report.

In the face of these challenges, White says that he will continue to run his citrus farm.

Man leaning against a stool with a cash register in the foreground
Marian Summerall
/
Next Generation Radio
Eddie White talks about the past and the future of Red Hill Groves as he leans on a table where he sells fresh-squeezed orange juice to customers. The family business has had to adapt and diversify, selling jams, jellies, candies, honey and barbecue – in addition to citrus.

“It’s the profession I’ve chosen and I’ll continue to do it until I can’t do it anymore,’’ Eddie White said. “When you’re in the citrus business, you never retire.”

Urbanization has also changed White’s industry. The small rural farmland his family planted their roots in is now overcrowded with houses and busy highways.

According to a 2021 report from the Orlando Economic Partnership, about 1,000 people move to Central Florida each week, and a recent 2022 report from the U.S. Census Bureau highlights Florida as the fastest-growing state in the union. Eddie White describes housing development in Sanford as neverending.

“Florida doesn’t grow citrus anymore. Florida grows houses,’’ Eddie White said. “In the old days, $3,500 … $3,000, you could even get land for $500, but you bought cheap dirt. Cheap dirt because it takes five years for an orange tree to grow before it becomes viable.’’

Growing citrus takes a lot of “cheap dirt,’’ Eddie White said, which has become more valuable to landowners to develop as subdivisions, strip malls and distribution centers for trucking.

Man holding a picture of an old house
Marian Summerall
/
Next Generation Radio
Eddie White holds a photo from 1902 of the original house that stood on the property at Red Hill Groves. He grew up on this land, but now it’s surrounded by four-lane highways and he no longer is able to hear the sound of cows mooing, but rather the honking of cars in traffic.

Eddie White marks the change in Central Florida from a rural to urban community with the arrival of Walt Disney World in 1971. He was there when the parks first opened, and he says the influx of tourists – and people deciding to come back to live in Florida – has led to all the traffic, new manufacturing and housing developments that now surround his grove.

“There is B.D. and A.D. – before Disney and after Disney,” Eddie White said.

Nevertheless, he says he won’t sell his property as the farm is linked to his family and the history of citrus in Sanford. Although the farm animals in the surrounding area have been replaced with heavy traffic, Eddie White enjoys looking at the land around him, and remembering the days before urbanization changed his rural community. He says learning to adapt to the changes – like his family has had to do – is what it means to be a Floridian.

“Now it all looks like this and we just deal with change,” Eddie White said. “When you say, what’s it like to be a Floridian, you can reminisce about the cows out in the field and riding your horse and cracking the bullwhip.”