Listen to the story by Greg Allen here.
Last year, I wrote a story about an organic orange grove in Lake Wales, and the owner's efforts to combat greening without the use of toxic chemicals. That story appeared in the February issue of Focus Magazine, Winter Haven edition. The original text for that article appears below:
Coyote Grove: Organic Citrus on the Lake Wales Ridge
photos and story by Andrew Moore
Rolling hills covered with densely planted orange groves flow to the horizon. The deep green leaves and contrasting bright citrus—or, depending on the season, fragrant white blossoms—are ubiquitous throughout the region. Citrus growing, packing, and processing make up a substantial portion of Polk County’s economy. But there are threats to this industry, and to this landscape—from the Asian Citrus Psyllid, a lice-like insect which leads to the diseases known as HLB Greening— to occasional freezing temperatures like those of early 2010.
Yet Coyote Grove, a lone, 20-acre operation, nestled within the heart of commercial citrus on the Lake Wales Ridge, is doing something unique within this Central Florida agricultural tradition. Coyote Grove produces organic citrus without the help of herbicides, pesticides, or other toxic chemicals. Instead, grove owner Bruce Nearon and his wife, Janet Clark, use organic sprays, and predatory insects, such as lady bugs, to combat the myriad of threats to growing citrus in Florida.
The organic spray often includes such simple household ingredients as garlic and fish oil. Eric Ricardo, the current Grove Manager at Coyote, describes the mixture as a witch’s brew. “It smells like an Italian fish dish,” Eric says, describing the grove on spray days.
Bruce says he uses organic methods because he doesn’t want to input any more toxic chemicals into the earth. He admits that, to him, the taste of organic citrus is better—but that the environmental impacts are his primary concern.
While these organic techniques are still being tested, disputed, and tweaked against the evolving challenges to growing citrus, if these methods do succeed, Coyote Grove might have something to teach growers everywhere, and possibly save citrus from disappearing in the United State
“I want to keep my grove alive,” Bruce says.
The story of Coyote Grove begins in 1974, when Bruce Nearon was living and working on a farm near Gainesville. Bruce admits that as a young farmer, he didn’t really know what he was doing. Eager to learn more, Bruce was introduced to an experienced grower named Lee McComb, in Leesburg. According to Bruce, Lee was one of the earliest growers of organic citrus in Florida—and Lee offered to sell a bag of these oranges to Bruce.
“I don’t like oranges,” Bruce told him. But Lee insisted his oranges were different.“Try mine,” Lee said.
Bruce fell in love with the taste. He soon established a business—Sunbelt Citrus—which processed and distributed fresh, organic orange juice. A partner, Mark Addison, joined him, and together their business grew every year from 1974 to 1981.
In December of 1981, something unexpected and destructive happened: temperatures in Florida dropped below freezing. The fruit at Lee McComb’s grove was destroyed. Sales disappeared, and the partners were unable to operate a business.
So Bruce headed farther south to warmer Central Florida and arrived in Winter Haven. Since he was a licensed fruit buyer, Bruce began calling growers in Polk County. He was hired by Gilbert Bowen, president of Bowen Brothers, one of the largest growers in Florida at that time.
Then, in the first week of 1982, another killer freeze swept through Florida. Since there was no fruit to buy, Gilbert Brown changed Bruce’s position within the company to the management of young trees. This move was where Bruce first learned to grow fruit, a valuable experience that would serve him years later.
But then, again, in 1983, another harsh freeze devastated local growers. At this point, Bruce began to worry about the stability of this life.
“I started to get scared,” Bruce says. “I thought, ‘What if every tree in the state freezes? This is all I know.’”
After enduring three freezes in four years, Bruce decided to return to Gainesville and finish school at the University of Florida.
Bruce graduated with a Masters in Accounting and worked as a CPA in the Gainesville area. In his free time, though, Bruce didn’t give up gardening, and picked up growing organically on the same property where he first started in the 1970’s. Bruce says he was self-taught in the ways of organics.
“There was no internet back then,” he says. “You got books and you had to talk to people.”
Bruce says he continued to expand his gardening operation to the point where he went broke.
“The organic market wasn’t as big as it is today. It was too expensive to grow at that scale,” he says.
In 1997, Bruce eventually went bankrupt, and decided to leave Florida for his home state of New York. There, he began practicing at a new firm and continues to work there today.
Despite having moved thousands of miles away, Bruce couldn’t shake the pull of citrus. In 2004, he and his wife Janet began driving around Polk County looking at for-sale orange groves.
In the hills of the Lake Wales Ridge, just south of Highway 60, Bruce discovered a modest twenty-acre grove for sale. Janet thought this was the right grove. They called Gilbert Bowen, his friend and former boss, seeking his advice. Gilbert said to buy it. The couple purchased it, and delved into growing immediately.
But since Bruce was still working in the New York area, he needed to have someone locally looking after the grove. Bruce contacted Mark Addison, his former partner in Sunbelt Citrus, and offered him the position of Grove Manager. Mark accepted and the two were reunited in an organic business.
“There never was [a question about growing organically],” Bruce says, “that was what I had in mind the whole time.”
Gilbert Bowen once had 500 acres of organic citrus, but had since converted back to a non-organic commercial practice because of the expense involved. Gilbert’s son-in-law, Jacoby George, was able to teach Bruce from that experience, and the operation of Coyote Grove officially began.Bruce’s return to Central Florida happened to be in 2004—the same year that three hurricanes crossed through Polk County and brought hardship on all residents—from damages to crops, power outages at homes, to downed power lines and flooded roadways.
“The grove lost 4,000 boxes of fruit,” Bruce says. It took six months for Mark to clean downed or damaged limbs from the grove. At the end of the hurricane season, forty percent of the fruit was lost—or, the equivalent of seven to eight semi-trailer loads.
Two years later though, the grove had recovered from hurricane damages, residual herbicides had worn off, and Coyote Grove was successfully producing organic citrus. In the fall of 2009, Mark retired as Grove Manager, but his son Eric has taken over and now looks after the day-to-day operations of the grove.
What makes Coyote Grove unique at first sight is the planting design. Instead of the standard singe-file rows common in commercial groves throughout the state, Coyote is planted in quads, tightly arranged clusters of four.
Bruce says this technique is very rare in Florida, and although he inherited the design from the previous owners, it allows for organic methods to flourish.
In some of these clusters, for example, a guava tree is planted along with the traditional Hamlin orange. When a guava leaf is damaged, it lets off Dimethyl Disulfide (“DMDS), a volatile scent that drives psyllids away.
“Psyllids will turn and fly 180 degrees and get as far away [from the guava scent],” Bruce says. “If the psyllid stayed on the leaf, it would be killed in fifteen minutes. Bruce says he has seen this happen in laboratory experiments.
The guava pheromone is one of the more simple techniques employed at Coyote Grove. Bruce coordinates some of his more experimental techniques with professors at the University of Florida’s Southwest Florida Research and Education Center, located in Immokalee.
One such effort was the release of half a million lady bugs into the grove. The thought is, that lady bugs, or the other insects that Bruce has used, will control psyllids by killing them.
“We have released a lot of predatory insects,” Bruce says. “We’ve had a lot of luck keeping the psyllids low.” But the research is still young, and they are not yet sure which variables are indeed responsible for the low amount of psyllids.
Bruce has an eyepiece that he uses to inspect psyllids activity. “Wherever I saw psyllids,” he says, “I saw a predatory insect trapping it to kill it.”
After surviving in the industry through freezes—including recent ones—and through hurricanes, the challenge now is to beat HLB greening.
“HLB has destroyed citrus in nearly every country where is has arrived,” Bruce says. He explains that it is not just Coyote Grove that is threatened. “It is a question of whether the whole citrus industry can survive. I think that using predatory insects has potential. Maybe I’m being a naïve dreamer, but I do think you can get this disease under control.”
At the top of the hill at the center of Coyote Grove sand-hill cranes fly overhead. At night raccoons emerge, and yes, coyotes howl. Bruce says coyotes occasionally eat the fruit, but that generally they are not a nuisance. This grove is something that gives Bruce peace. “The air is fresher out here,” he says.
“Look out over that hill right now,” Bruce says, “there are groves as far as the eye can see. It would be heartbreaking to see all rooftops or skeletons of dead and dying trees that succumbed to HLB. It would be such a sad thing. If I can keep our grove alive —I don’t care if we are the last grove in Florida—as long as we can beat the psyllids and the freezes.”