These articles are on Alexander Thomas Stewart's son, Ivan, and Ivan's son, Charles.

 

The Ledger

November 9, 2003


GROWING A LIVING - STEWART FAMILY MADE

A FAMILY BUSINESS OUT OF TANGERINES

 

 



HAINES CITY One can almost read the last 40 years of the Florida citrus industry outlined on Ivan Stewart's face.


The lines around his eyes resonate from thousands of trips through his citrus groves peering for evidence of pests or diseases that could wipe out his tangerines.


The furrowed brow comes from worrying whether Stewart's crop would survive the long journey from the blooms of winter to the budding fruit in spring to maturity and harvest in the fall and back to winter. Pests, diseases or as little as four hours below 28 degrees can mean disaster.


The ruddy complexion comes from hours in the hot Florida sun broken only occasionally by all-night vigils in the grove battling potentially destructive freezing temperatures. Stewart has lost that battle a few times during the past 40 years.


Once harvest comes, Stewart, 81, must worry whether the market will pay enough to cover expenses, such as fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, irrigation, fuel and equipment, plus something more to live on.


Talk to anyone in agriculture from the Florida citrus grower to the Midwestern grain farmer to the wine grape grower in France, and you'll hear a familiar refrain: Consumers think the food on their table goes no further back than the supermarket.


"No doubt about that: Our children are not well-educated in where the fruit comes from," Stewart said.


That attitude may reflect a self- pity common among agriculture people, but it contains more than a little truth. Even in Polk County, the heart of Florida citrus, few people outside the industry know the tribulations growers experience in growing and selling citrus, despite the fact it remains a pillar of the local economy.


Today's articles mark the beginning of an occasional series in The Ledger that follows a local grower through the citrus season, which began in October and ends in June.


Ivan Stewart and his son, Charles, 47, have agreed to give The Ledger an inside look at their grove business through the 2003-04 season.


NOT YOUR TYPICAL GROWER


In some respects, Ivan Stewart doesn't represent your typical grower. A native of Kentucky, Stewart didn't set foot in Florida until 1951 at age 29, when he earned a doctorate in plant physiology at Rutgers University in New Jersey.


Growing citrus didn't come naturally. Although his grandfather farmed tobacco, Ivan Stewart's father [Alexander Thomas Stewart] worked as a lawyer with only a small backyard garden.


When he arrived in Florida with his wife, Gladys, he said, "I didn't know an orange tree from a grapefruit tree. But I knew I wanted a grove." Until he retired in 1987, Stewart worked full time researching soils and plant nutrition at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, part of the University of Florida. There he did ground-breaking work on eliminating iron deficiencies in citrus trees.

 

"He has more technical knowledge about growing citrus than the average grower," said Jim Griffiths, 89, a long- time friend and managing partner at Citrus Grower Associates Inc. in Lakeland, which represents small and medium-sized growers. "Most growers would know Ivan Stewart because of his work at Lake Alfred. Most citrus people wouldn't know him as a grower."

 

Stewart's first "grove" consisted of a few orange trees in the back yard of his Haines City home, which he purchased shortly after moving to Florida.

 

A few years later, Stewart bought 15 acres of wooded property north of Haines City for $65 an acre. With only the weekends to work, he didn't finish clearing the land and planting his first crop until 1962.

 

That first property remains part of the Stewarts' total 180 acres of grove land.

 

His son Charles more closely resembles the typical Florida grower. He grew up in the citrus business.

 

As a boy, Charles Stewart recalled, he carried a bucket full of granular fertilizer around his father's grove and spread it by hand. The entire family -- Ivan, Gladys, Charles and two daughters, Alice O'Hara, 51, of Fort Myers, and Sarah Godwin, 49, of Tallahassee -- spent most Saturday mornings doing caretaking chores, then Ivan Stewart "paid" them with lunch at McDonald's.

 

"I thought about doing other things, but I decided I'd rather stick with growing," Charles Stewart said. He worked in caretaking for other Florida growers following his 1982 graduation from the University of Florida, then returned full time to the family business in 1985.

 

His sisters decided to pursue education careers. O'Hara is the director of the Florida Migrant Interstate Program, an education and social services for children of migrant workers with the Florida Department of Education. Godwin works as a kindergarten teacher.

 

Gladys is a poet whose work has been published in The Ledger and several poetry anthologies. A book of her poems is scheduled for release later this year.

 

HANDS-ON

 

Nobody had to tell Ivan and Charles Stewart this season's crop would be large. The Stewarts aren't absentee growers who own citrus groves as an investment and hire others to do the dirty work, literally.

 

The Stewarts are hands-on growers. Citrus is their livelihood.

 

So as they walked down row after row of tangerines on a warm August morning, the Stewarts could see their trees laden with green fruit hanging in clumps of three, four or more pieces from most of the branches.

 

"It will be a big crop this season," Ivan Stewart said seven weeks before the official Oct. 10 USDA estimate.

 

So that morning, Charles Stewart spent several hours "thinning," or going from tree to tree and picking green, unripe Murcott tangerines about the size of tennis balls and throwing them to the ground.

 

To a non-grower, that might seem to run against common sense. Doesn't a grower want the tree to produce as much fruit as possible?

 

No, Charles Stewart said. If a tree produces too much fruit, it can't provide sufficient nutrients to each piece.

 

When that happens, he said, the fruit doesn't "size up" enough for the marketplace, where consumers have come to expect a certain-sized tangerine. In extreme cases, the tree will die from carrying too much fruit.

 

So during high-growth seasons, the Stewarts must watch the tree, particularly Robinson and Murcott tangerine trees, and thin them of a few excess unripe fruit. A few tangerines are sacrificed for the health of the many.

 

A citrus tree produces too much fruit for several reasons.

 

The biology of some tree varieties makes them subject to "alternate bearing," Charles Stewart said. Essentially, the tree "tires" after producing a large crop and "rests" the following year by producing a smaller crop.

 

Obviously, growing conditions play a key role. The sandy soils on the Florida Ridge, where the Stewarts grow, require abundant rainfall. Warm to hot temperatures during the day and cool temperatures at night during the spring and summer favor citrus growth.

 

When both combine, as happened this season, a record crop comes as no surprise, the Stewarts said.

 

Good growing conditions result in other unwanted growth that must be addressed during the spring and summer months.

 

The summer months keep the Stewarts particularly busy mowing grass and weeding between the tree rows.

 

The Stewarts also apply herbicides three to four times a year to keep grass and weed growth down. Even with this year's abundant rainfall, sandy soils mean citrus trees, especially the young ones, need some irrigation. The Stewarts, like most commercial growers in Florida, use low volume spray irrigation commonly called "Microjets," the product name of one of the first such systems.

 

Ivan Stewart recalled the days before Microjets became prevalent in the early 1980s. Growers put irrigation pipes down a row of trees, ran the water for an hour, then picked up the pipe and moved it to another row.

 

"That was hard work," he recalled. Microjets, by contrast, require much less work. That's why the Stewarts alone can maintain an irrigation system over 180 acres.

 

Next to every tree in their groves stands a black plastic spike that measures about a foot off the ground. On top of the spike sits a small (micro) nozzle that sprays (jets) water within a circle of a couple of feet.

 

A small rubber hose runs from the bottom of the Microjet and connects to a larger rubber pipe running along the ground. A central pump feeds the system with well water.

 

The Microjet system provides a lifeline of both water and nutrition. The Stewarts and most other Florida growers pump liquid fertilizers into the system while it irrigates, a process dubbed "fertigation." Microjets are not entirely maintenance-free, however.

 

On one recent afternoon, in a young 40-acre grove of Murcott tangerines near Lake Hamilton, Ivan Stewart tended to a tank with 140 gallons of liquid fertilizer feeding into the irrigation system. Meanwhile, Charles Stewart drove his pickup truck up and down the grove rows looking for malfunctioning Microjets.

 

The younger Stewart looks for Microjets that aren't spraying, usually because ants, pebbles or pieces of a mollusk shell no larger than a pinhead clog the nozzle. When he finds one, Stewart pops the nozzle off and clears it with a wire about the size of a paper clip.

 

Stewart also looks for holes in the connecting pipes, usually from rabbits or other animals that gnaw on them "like spaghetti," he joked.

 

He makes a rapid repair by cutting out the damaged section then rejoining the severed ends with a plastic connector.

 

When the trees don't need irrigation, an electric timer turns the pump on and off, Ivan Stewart said. That's also a change from the old days, when a caretaker would have to turn the pumps on and off manually.

 

"If we had to come and turn the pump on and off, that itself would take a whole day," he said.

 

A GOOD NIGHT'S SLEEP

 

At the end of the day, the Stewarts return to their Haines City home. Charles Stewart, who lives there with his parents, handles the day's final task, recording their activities in a log book. Not for sentimental reasons but as a planning tool, Charles Stewart said. With 180 acres spread among a dozen groves within a radius of 15 miles, the Stewarts need to record what's been done on each grove, from thinning to fertilizer and pesticide applications.

 

They also discuss the next day's work. Ivan Stewart spends at least part of every day in a grove, he said. "Particularly in my older years, I like to be active," Ivan Stewart said.

Some grove owners use computers to record grove activities, and Charles Stewart could do so on his computer, he said. But like his father, he's old-fashioned when it comes to the citrus business. "I've always been conservative as all get-out," Ivan Stewart said. "I never considered myself a very good businessman."

 

Other than those first two groves purchased some 40 years ago, for example, Stewart has never purchased land on credit, he said. He's purchased more than 100 acres since then from profits.

 

Meanwhile, many growers expanded by borrowing and paying off mortgages on future profits. Those growers are struggling in this period of low citrus fruit prices.

 

"I never operated like that," Ivan Stewart said. "That's not very good business, but at least I could sleep at night."

 

Lakeland Ledger

Published Saturday, February 14, 2004
Battling Nature's Wrath
Devastating Freezes Can Make and Break Florida's Citrus Growers

 

HAINES CITY Drought and pestilence traditionally top the farmers' enemies list, but Florida citrus growers also would rank freezes among disasters of biblical proportion.

 

No other force of nature has done more to shape the state's citrus industry or its growers.

 

Freezes in the late 1950s convinced Ivan Stewart, 81, he should grow tangerines, a citrus variety that tolerates cold better than oranges, the state's dominant citrus variety.

 

But even the hardier tangerines sustained heavy damage during the freezes of the 1980s. The devastation ruined many Florida growers, but the economic fallout allowed Ivan and Charles Stewart, 47, his son and business partner, to expand their acreage substantially. "The freezes almost put us out of business, and they put us back in business," Ivan Stewart said.

 

The freezes devastated their groves, but it also put other devastated groves on the market when discouraged small growers couldn't afford to replant. The Stewarts purchased some of that land and increased their grove acreage more than fourfold. The Stewarts grow tangerines, oranges and tangelos (a tangerine-grapefruit hybrid) on 180 acres split among 12 groves near their Haines City home. They have agreed to participate in a monthly series of articles in The Ledger following their grove operations through the 2003-04 season. This month the Stewarts talked about how they and other Florida growers survive freezes.

 

MONITORING THE THREAT

 

At first, the Stewarts track a citrus freeze no differently than most weather followers: They watch TV and read The Ledger. A citrus freeze occurs when the temperature drops below 28 degrees for at least four hours. Cold weather above that threshold actually helps improve the color in oranges, grapefruit and tangerines and puts the tree in a beneficial, semi-dormant state. But the farther the temperature falls below that threshold, the more damage it does to the tree and fruit. A semi-tropical fruit, citrus thrives best on warm days and cool nights.

 

When media reports indicate a freeze looms, Charles Stewart turns on his home computer for more detailed information. He browses the Florida Automated Weather Network (FAWN) Web site operated by the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

 

FAWN has 33 weather stations across Florida, including one at the UF Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, near the Stewarts' groves. The site at fawn.ifas.ufl.edu updates temperature and other weather data every five minutes. When a freeze threatens, today's commercial citrus growers depend on Microjet irrigation systems for freeze protection. The system uses a series of small nozzles placed below every tree and connected to plastic hoses fed by a central well and pump. The small nozzle sprays a fine mist onto each tree.

 

During a freeze, the reaction of water turning to ice radiates heat that protects the tree and fruit. The Microjets must be kept running throughout the freeze to produce heat continuously. Growers must start the Microjets before the air temperature reaches 36 degrees, Ivan Stewart said. Waiting any longer risks ice clogging the system. Before the temperature reaches 36, the Stewarts must run the irrigation at each grove to make sure all the lines and nozzles are functioning, Charles Stewart said. Repairing holes in the plastic tubes caused by farm equipment or animals is the most common problem.

 

Although no citrus freeze has hit Florida this season, Charles Stewart has spent three nights running and checking the irrigations at their groves when freezing temperatures loomed, he said. With a dozen groves spread over a 15-mile radius of their home, that took most of the night. The irrigation system cannot stop during a freeze because ice must form continuously to generate heat, Charles Stewart said. That means growers must also make sure the pumps feeding the irrigation system with well water function properly when freezing temperatures strike.

 

Electric motors drive the pumps at all the Stewarts' groves, and Charles Stewart has acquired a few electrician's skills to save money on maintenance expenses. Earlier this year, for example, a pump repair at a grove in Davenport cost them $500 for parts alone. Charles' labor came free. Some growers use dieselpowered pumps, which are less mechanically reliable.

 

Electric pumps, on the other hand, depend on a steady supply of power. That's not always a sure thing when temperatures drop below freezing in Florida as the demand for heat from homeowners and other businesses stresses the state's electric power grid. So far, the Stewarts have not experienced grove damage stemming from a brownout or blackout.

 

Citrus growers have other reasons for starting the pumps before the recorded temperature reaches freezing. Young trees are more susceptible to freeze damage, the Stewarts said. They need protection before the air temperature reaches 28 degrees. The recorded temperature can mask a wide variation in temperatures in the area around a weather station, they said. A freeze poses a particular threat to a grove on "cold property" that sits in low-lying terrain, Ivan Stewart said. The Stewarts have several groves on cold properties.

 

On a still night, the temperature can differ as much as 10 degrees between a low-lying grove and one on a hilly terrain, he said. Without the wind to keep the air circulating, the coldest temperatures sink to the ground. A thermometer in a grove on high terrain can read a safe 36 degrees while a destructive 26 degrees damages trees in a lowlying grove, Stewart said. "This is not uncommon at all," he added.

 

DESTRUCTION AND OPPORTUNITY

 

The Stewarts did not escape damage from the devastating freezes of the 1980s, the worst decade in more than 150 years of commercial citrus in Florida. The 1989 freeze destroyed more than half of their trees, Ivan Stewart said.


But they survived the devastation better than most small growers in part because of his decision to plant mostly tangerines and tangelos.

All the 1980s freezes occurred in late December or January. By that time, most of their tangelos and early-season tangerines had been harvested, Ivan Stewart said.

 

Only their Murcott tangerines, a late-season variety picked in January through February, were substantially affected, he said. That was a minority of their crop at the time. For citrus growers who manage to save their fruit and trees from destruction, a freeze has positive economic benefits. The resulting shortage raises the farm price of fruit for at least that season.

 

In a "hard freeze" that kills many citrus trees, like freezes in 1983 and 1989, prices can stay high for the next several seasons because of the subsequent shortage of fruit. A new citrus tree takes three to five years to yield its first commercial crop and another several years to reach maximum production.

 

"The grower who replants the quickest after a freeze makes the most money," Ivan Stewart said.

 

The Stewarts not only survived but expanded their acreage following the 1980s freezes because they replanted faster than other small growers.

 

Replanting after the '80s freezes proved to be difficult because many commercial citrus nurseries also lost young trees. Larger growers purchased most of the surviving stock, resulting in a shortage of replacement trees for small growers, Ivan Stewart said.

 

The tree shortage did not affect the Stewarts because they grew nursery trees on their land, he said. That gave them an adequate supply of young trees to replant their own devastated groves and the new groves they purchased. Unlike most small growers, Ivan and Charles Stewart also know how to "bud" trees.

 

After a dead tree has been cut down, a new tree can regrow on the remaining stump, or rootstock, by grafting a citrus bud onto it. Only if the freeze also damages the rootstock does the entire tree have to be pulled from the ground and replaced with a new plant.

 

The nursery trees the Stewarts grew allowed them to replant their own groves plus additional acreage they purchased from growers who left the citrus business because they couldn't replant, the Stewarts said.

 

ALWAYS A THREAT

 

While the Stewarts survived the 1980s better than hundreds of other small growers, success came only by dint of hard work and high anxiety. That's why the threat of freezes never strays far from the minds of Florida citrus growers. "Growers always talk about freezes," Ivan Stewart said. "They talked about freezes from the day I came here (in 1951), even though there hadn't been one in a while."

 

Ivan Stewart admitted age has caught up with him and that he couldn't do all the hard work needed to restore a freezedamaged grove. And Charles Stewart acknowledged he wasn't sure the continually changing economics of citrus will make it possible for a small grower to survive another destructive freeze.

 

"It all has to do with money," Charles Stewart said. "I can't throw money at something that will make me lose more money."

 

Published Sunday, April 11, 2004
Doing Push-Ups
Growers Find Grove Sweet on Promise, Bitter on Rewards

 

HAINES CITY Ivan Stewart's mood turned dour as he drove through his 10-acre grove of Ambersweet orange trees near Davenport for one of the last times.

 

"I hate to push up these trees," said Stewart, 81, who operates a citrus grove business with his son, Charles. "They're healthy trees, but they're just not producing any money. I'm pretty close to my trees."

The Stewarts said they can remember planting every one of some 1,100 trees following the December 1989 freeze that devastated the grove.

 

"We put a lot of hard work in this grove over the years, a lot of blood, sweat and tears," said Charles Stewart, 47. "Every grove has its own story."

 

Charles Stewart

 

As the Stewarts reminisced on this March afternoon, Loyla Waid, an independent contractor from Davenport, sat some 10 feet above ground atop his front-end loader writing a new chapter in the grove's story.

 

At the front of the loader, a huge bucket with six steel claws, each about a yard long, dug into the sandy soil and uprooted an entire orange tree. The loader then carried each tree to a massive pile at one end of the grove, where they would burn later.

 

Stewart's Grove

 

Waid, 69, has been "pushing up" -- the citrus grower's term for demolish -- groves for more than 30 years. Unlike the Stewarts, he has no sentimental attachment to the trees, he said.

"I've done this for just about every grower in Florida," he said. "I like outdoor work. I'm not an indoor man."

 

The Stewarts have agreed to allow The Ledger to follow them through the 2003-04 citrus season to write about the challenges facing the small grower. They grow tangerines, tangelos and, up to this season, Ambersweet oranges on 180 acres of grove within a 15-mile radius of Haines City.

 

A MAN-MADE DISASTER

 

For most Florida orange growers, March means the beginning of the harvest for late-season Valencia oranges, the highest quality juice orange. The Valencia harvest runs through June, as does the grapefruit season.

 

Annually about 95 percent of the state's orange crop and more than 60 percent of its grapefruit go to juice.

But the Stewarts grow for the fresh citrus market, which wraps up by April with the harvest of late-season Murcott (Honey) tangerines. Their Navel and Ambersweet oranges are picked by January, and the last of the tangelos are gone a month later.

 

By April, fresh citrus growers such as the Stewarts, and many juice orange growers, are planning for the next season. That usually means replanting trees lost to pests and diseases in various sections of their groves.

 

In some years, as in this season for the Stewarts, replanting means pushing up entire groves and starting over. That typically happens only when a citrus freeze cuts a destructive swath through an entire growing area.

 

In the case of the Stewarts' Davenport grove, the destruction stems from man-made, not natural causes.

The promise of the Ambersweet didn't materialize, and growers abandoned the fruit less than a decade after its release. Among the unforeseen problems, the orange didn't mature as early in the season as first projected, particularly as a fresh fruit; flavor difficulties emerged in juice; and the trees didn't produce enough fruit to be profitable for growers.

 

LAYING OUT THE GROVE

 

A large citrus grower with a few hundred acres to replant might hire a survey crew or use the Global Positioning System, or GPS, to lay it out.

 

The Stewarts use a more low-tech method with a 300-foot measuring tape, a spool of aircraft cable, some old plastic pipes and a few boxes of drinking straws.

 

They designed the Davenport grove along a standard 25x15-foot configuration, a standard in the industry. That means 25 feet between each row and 15 feet between each tree in the row, or about 115 trees per acre.

 

The 25-foot space allows tractors, sprayers, mowers and other machinery to maneuver easily, Charles Stewart said. The 15-foot space allows the maximum number of trees in a row, thus maximizing fruit production, while making it easy to harvest.

 

To get the proper spacing, the Stewarts use the measuring tape to mark off the rows by pounding a stake, usually an old plastic irrigation pipe, every 25 feet along two borders of the grove. Then they take the spool of steel cable, originally intended for aircraft controls, between the stakes.

 

At every 15 feet on the cable, the Stewarts painted a marker with red fluorescent paint. At every red mark, they stick a plastic straw into the ground. That tells the planting crew where each tree goes.

Charles Stewart likes to be precise, down to the inch. Once a few rows have been marked, he'll go to the same location in the middle of several rows and pound a plastic pipe into the ground.

 

Then he steps back and sees if the poles line up. If Stewart stoops down at one end, he shouldn't be able to see poles behind the first one. If he sees any part of another pole, that row is out of alignment.

It can take from 20 to 30 minutes to lay out a single row of a couple dozen trees.

"I like to get it tight and straight," Charles Stewart said. "I was more precise when I was younger. I'm a little more liberal now."

 

The direction of the trees is also important, particularly for a "cold property" like their Davenport grove, Ivan Stewart said. The grove lies on low, hilly land off the Central Florida Ridge.

 

Cold air tends to sink from the Ridge onto the grove. A 10-degree difference between one of their Ridge groves and the Davenport property is not uncommon.

 

"There can be frost here, and nothing at our (Haines City) home," Charles Stewart said.

So the Stewarts laid out the rows following the slope of the property. On a cold night, that allows the air to drain off the grove into nearby woods, Ivan Stewart said.

 

When all the straws are placed, the Stewarts stretch the plastic irrigation tubes down each row about a foot away from the row. A plastic stake with a sprinkler head sits near each straw.

 

The Stewarts hope to begin planting next month.

 

Once they agreed on pushing up the Ambersweet grove earlier this year, the Stewarts debated the equally crucial decision on what to plant there.

 

Ivan Stewart flirted with the Ordanique, a tangelo native to Jamaica. The Stewarts have a few Ordanique trees in another grove, and Ivan likes the sweet taste of the fruit.

 

"Some people didn't think that much of the flavor," Charles Stewart said.

 

But Ivan Stewart conceded the Ordanique has two serious drawbacks in today's fresh citrus markets. The tangelo has a lot of seeds, and it's difficult to peel.

 

U.S. consumers prefer a "zipper-skin" fruit with no seeds, Ivan Stewart said. Those are two reasons the Spanish Clementine tangerine has become popular in the U.S. market.

 

The late-season Murcott (Honey) tangerine competes with the Clementine, but the Stewarts already have 90 acres of Murcotts.

 

"We had a very nice (Murcott) crop this year. The quality was excellent," Ivan Stewart said. "I don't know what price we'll get for them yet."

 

The Stewarts are members of the Haines City Citrus Growers Association, which sells all their fruit. The association is a cooperative, so members won't get the final returns on their fruit until after the citrus season ends in June.

 

In March, Murcotts were selling for $9 to $15 per carton, which weighs 42.5 pounds, according to Florida Citrus Mutual in Lakeland, the state's largest growers' organization.

 

That compares with an average seasonal price ranging from $12.77 to $16.94 during the past six seasons, according to the Citrus Administrative Committee.

 

The Stewarts agreed on planting 10 acres of Minneola tangelos, which are harvested in January and February, about the same time as Murcotts. They have five acres of Minneolas now.

 

"They're hard to grow. They're expensive because they need a lot of attention," Ivan Stewart said.

But Minneolas have sold well in recent years, he said, and there aren't a lot of other people growing them in Florida. That means if the fruit grows in popularity, a limited supply will push up the price.

 

"There's not a lot of competition," Charles Stewart agreed. "I think it will be a niche market."

 

Monday, November 1, 2004
Tangerine Trials
Family Cleans Up Groves Ravaged by Summer Storms


By Kevin Bouffard
The Ledger, Lakeland Florida

 

HAINES CITY This year's Florida hurricanes struck close to home for the Stewart family, in more than one sense.

Hurricane Charley caused the most damage to the family's 180 acres of citrus trees, spread among a dozen separate groves near Haines City, according to Charles Stewart, 49, a partner in the family business. The storm, which hit Aug. 13, spared their home, for the most part.

 

"Charley was the worst, no doubt about that," he said. "In some groves, we lost maybe 35 percent of our fruit." Weeks later, the Stewarts can joke about the damage their groves sustained from hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne. But the humor comes as Stewart and his father, Ivan, 82, are still cleaning up damage.

 

In addition to clearing away the tangerines and tangelos blown off the trees and rotting on the ground, the Stewarts have been busy resetting hundreds of uprooted trees. Those that cannot be reset will be cut down and removed.

Before business can return to normal, the scores of broken limbs littering the open spaces between the rows of citrus trees need to be cut up and hauled away.

 

All that debris must be cleared away before the harvesting crews can come in to pick the fruit, Ivan Stewart said. The harvest for Sunburst tangerines and other early-season citrus fruit begins in October.

 

Because the Stewarts' 12 groves are spread out within a 15-mile radius of their Haines City home, the damage at each of the groves varied according to how close it came to the centers of the hurricanes.

 

One of the hardest hit was a 40-acre grove near Lake Hamilton, which has about 10 acres of three-year-old Murcott tangerine trees. The Murcott, also known as a honey tangerine, is a late season variety harvested after Christmas.

 

Charley knocked down more than 100 Murcott trees, many felled one after the other along a row like bowling pins.

 

Standing about 6 feet tall, the young citrus trees can be pulled up and reset into the ground, Charles Stewart said. Trees as old as five years can be successfully reset, but older trees tend not to recover after replanting.

 

However, the young trees are fragile and must be set upright with care, he said. Stewart said a horse's harness works best.

The harness consists of several strands of rope fiber attached to a leather strap in the middle and tied to metal rings at both ends. Stewart hooks the harness to a chain attached to the back of his pickup truck.

 

The rope and leather cushion the young tree against the force exerted as a pickup truck pulls it upright, Stewart said.

Once the tree is reset, Stewart uses a post pounded into the ground, about a foot away and attached to rope looped around the tree, to keep it from tipping over again.

 

The posts supported the trees well, until Frances and Jeanne blew over some of the trees again, Stewart said.

In another grove near Haines City, Charley blew off virtually all the Minneola tangelos, Ivan Stewart said. The Minneolas, covering half the 10-acre grove, had grown to a good size, making them particularly vulnerable to the hurricane's winds.

"It was the biggest Minneola crop we ever had there," he said.

 

Fewer than half the Sunburst tangerines in that grove survived, Charles Stewart said.

 

"(But) we could have survived if the other two hurricanes hadn't come along," Ivan Stewart said.

 

Frances and Jeanne didn't uproot many more trees, but they did cause additional damage. In some cases, trees split in half down to the ground.

 

Fruit on the split trees will survive until harvest, Ivan Stewart said. But they won't grow another crop and will have to be removed at the end of the season.

 

The biggest damage from Frances and Jeanne came from additional fruit loss. The Stewarts estimate they lost about 30 percent of their crop to Charley and, probably, another 10 percent each to Frances and Jeanne.

 

Fruit loss isn't the only concern for the Stewarts and other citrus growers. Because consumers demand unblemished produce, growers spend additional money and effort on fungicides, pesticides and other caretaking chores to produce a cosmetically appealing piece of fruit.

 

The hurricanes made that tougher.

 

The winds whipped the ends of the tree limbs around like a cato'-nine-tails, Charles Stewart said. The thrashing sent tangerines and tangelos crashing against each other, bruising and scratching them.

 

The wind also stirred up the sandy soil, blowing it against the fruit like a sandblaster, he said.

 

At the family's Lake Hamilton grove, powerful winds stripped away the surface of the peels on low-hanging, green Murcotts, turning the bottom half of the fruit brown.

 

More than 600 of the Stewarts' trees were uprooted. Statewide, hurricane-related crop damage will boost farm prices in the 2004-05 season, according to Mark Brown, an economist with the Florida Department of Citrus in Lakeland. Brown projected this season's on-tree price for early tangerines would be $14.39 a box and $16.39 a box for late tangerines. By comparison, early-season tangerines sold for $10.50 a box in 2003-04 and late-season varieties for $12.70 a box.

 

The on-tree price represents what fresh fruit packinghouses and juice processors pay growers after deducting harvesting, transportation and other costs. It does not include other growing expenses, such as caretaking costs, mortgages and taxes.

 

But higher farm prices will not make up for the fruit lost to the hurricanes, Ivan Stewart said. "You're not going to make much at $10 a box if you don't have much fruit, he said."

 

For small growers who lost a lot of fruit to the hurricanes, federal disaster assistance is the only thing that might keep them solvent until next citrus season, Stewart said. The federal program, announced in September, will pay a grower as much as $80,000.

 

"It would go a long ways to keep us out of trouble," Ivan Stewart said. The Stewarts have survived other disasters, including the devastating freezes of the 1980s that, up to this year, had set the standard for weather-related destruction. "I've been through freezes where we got a lot more damage than this," Ivan Stewart said. "We just have to start over. There's no need to dwell on it."

 

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