On my way to meet with citrus farmers Cecil and Stella Nelson, I realized that I didn’t know anything about citrus farming. The one related memory I have comes from my childhood home in South Florida, where my family had some kind of orange tree—a honeybell, I believe—and try as my dad might, the tree wouldn’t yield any fruit. Eventually, the tree came down with some disease, standing as an eyesore and point of failure among an otherwise lush garden, until it was removed. This orange tree is still a tender topic for my father. I don’t bring it up often.
I arrived in San Mateo, a small town outside of Palatka, and didn’t know what to expect. I’d never been to an orange grove, as un-Floridian as that sounds, nor had I ever met a citrus farmer. Luckily, by the time I left the Nelsons’ grove about four hours later, I was educated; I can now theoretically write a book on the topic of citrus farming thanks to the Nelsons. Well, maybe not, but I now know a lot more about oranges.
Cecil and Stella’s orange grove, spanning the length of 10 acres, is located a block away from their home, which has a garden of its own, full of specialty fruit. They hand-planted their grove together in 1986 and began farming citrus as a hobby.
The Nelsons have been married for 47 years and have done it all. Prior to being citrus farmers, Cecil worked for Florida Power and Light for 32 years, Stella worked as a nurse, and they joint-owned an antique business at one point and an upholstery business at another. But when they started growing citrus and got the word out about their new venture, the word got back to them quickly and loudly. Cecil says, “It just took off. People kept calling, saying, ‘I want fruit; I want fruit.’” So, they committed to their fruit full-time.
Cecil does most of the grove maintenance on his own. He also only uses natural fertilizers and no pesticides.
Stella says that “Cecil’s a hard worker. He’ll get up at sunrise and work till dusk. And sometimes I’ll have to call him in. I don’t think he likes being in houses. Half the time, I don’t even know what he’s doing out there.”
But when Cecil’s in the grove, there’s a visible dichotomy of hyper-analysis and spirituality in his demeanor—he examines the fruit logically and thoroughly, yet it’s as though he’s speaking to each piece of citrus and each tree like they’re individuals. He’s a parent to the fruit.
When I visited the grove it was full of potential energy—waiting to turn from green to orange. Nothing was quite ripe yet, and the only fruit that hinted of ripeness were the fallglo tangerines, which hung as a minority of orange amongst a sea of green fruit.
Cecil took me all over the grove, describing each subtle difference between every tree. At one point during our tour, he handed me a piece of pink grapefruit and said, “This here piece of grapefruit is two years old.” He then proceeded to cut it open and handed me half. “Just taste it,” he said—which I did, not wanting to upset my host, and it was good. He ate his half and said, “It’s a little watery, but it’s fine.”
Cecil says that one of the most important aspects of citrus farming is to produce fruits that are in demand. When they began their grove in the mid-’80s, the grapefruit diet was running rampant in pop-culture; the Nelsons accommodated such demand.
The Nelsons currently grow many different types of citrus. Some that Cecil mentioned include: ponkans, red navels, gold navels, red grapefruit, white grapefruit, murcotts, sunbursts, but there are many more. There are wild variations of oranges, grapefruits, and lemons with infinitesimal differences that only a true citrus lover could recognize.
And as Cecil gets older, the mad scientist in him becomes more experimental with new variations and fruits in his private garden, Cecil says, “I love to produce something that I like; if I don’t like it, then you’re not going to like it.”
One reason for the Nelsons’ success in citrus production is their ability to forecast consumer demands, and adapt to the ever-changing environment of fruit consumerism. Their big start began with grapefruit, but soon after the grapefruit diet trend, further reports about grapefruit consumption were released, ranging from how grapefruit might conflict with certain medications or raise cholesterol. Even though grapefruit are still the Nelsons’ best seller, they took a hit with this news. New statistics and trends are perpetually emerging.
Cecil’s ability to trend forecasts is as important to their success as actual weather forecasting. The two largest obstacles to citrus farming are disease and weather, so Cecil’s become somewhat of an amateur meteorologist. He tries his best to be ahead of Mother Nature, but he can only do so much. He says, “Whatever nature is gonna do, it’s gonna do.”
Nowadays, Cecil and Stella have begun experimenting with other fruits, such as pomegranates, sumos, and pineapples in their private garden while still maintaining the grove.
One of the reasons Cecil started growing plants other than citrus is due to Stella’s diagnosis with Lupus, an autoimmune disease that can affect joint-movement, fatigue, and several other bodily functions. Since Stella has been diagnosed, he makes a conscious effort to home grow most of their food to avoid ingesting unwanted chemicals from other farms and producers. Stella said that since they’ve been producing their own food, she feels a significant improvement in wellness on a day-to-day basis.
For Cecil, this all began as a hobby; he just loves to grow things. Then citrus farming transformed into a profession. But nowadays, his farming has even more purpose: he grows and cultivates fruit for the woman he loves.