If there’s one thing that the Sunshine State is known for, it’s oranges. At 6 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 10, at DeBary Hall, Jacksonville-based author and journalist Erin Thursby is coming to DeBary to discuss her book, Florida Oranges: A Colorful History, about the rich legacy of the state’s iconic crop.
The talk will focus on Thursby’s book, as well as some stories rooted in Volusia County, like the oranges grown along the Indian River, and a story about Frederick DeBary, the city’s namesake, united with a rag-tag group of citrus growers to take on a railway conglomerate.
She said she enjoys this period of Florida’s history, around the late 1800s, because of everyone’s excitement for growing the citrus fruit.
“They’re just so enthusiastic about growing oranges in Florida, comparing it to gold, but a gold that is much more reliable,” Thursby said.
Her writing about food and Florida has been featured in EU Jacksonville and Edible Northeast Florida magazines. Thursby also founded a nonprofit called Gastro Jax to promote local restaurants and local cuisine.
She said, as a native Floridian, studying the history of oranges was a fun and interesting endeavor.
“Florida history is something I’ve written about, and so is food, so this was kind of a marriage of the kinds of things I enjoy doing,” she said. “Oranges are a part of us, a part of Florida history.”
Thursby added that studying the citrus fruit helped her learn more about her home state.
“It’s such an odd crop. It’s strangely resilient and delicate at the same time. You can cut down citrus, but if you don’t burn it to the ground, it can come back,” she said. “I think it’s a metaphor for Florida. It can survive so much, but sometimes it just doesn’t.”
Nowadays, the state of Florida’s orange industry is much more precarious than it was in the 1800s. A bacteria known as citrus greening, which appeared in Florida in 2005, has severely damaged orange production statewide and in Volusia County. (See story below.)
The bacteria turns oranges a sickly green and gives them a bitter taste. While there is currently no solution for the disease, researchers have been hard at work for years trying to find one, and Thursby is optimistic that the industry will improve.
“I know everybody’s worried it’s all going to disappear, but the thing is, as I have been reading about crisis after crisis that happens to the orange industry, I realized, it’s like reading the same article,” she said. “That led me to a rather sunny conclusion: I don’t think it’s going anywhere. I don’t think the industry is going to disappear. It has to change, but it’s not going anywhere.”
Thursby’s talk will be limited to an attendance of 15 people to allow for social distancing. Advance registration is required; to register, call DeBary City Hall at 386-668-3840, ext. 21136.
Citrus greening a challenge for Florida
Citrus production has been declining statewide and in Volusia County for years now. While competition from California, Mexico, and Brazil isn’t helping, nor are hurricanes battering South Florida, the main culprit is the disease known as citrus greening, which turns oranges a sickly green and makes them too bitter for consumption.
The disease is caused by a small invasive fly known as a psyllid, which eats the leaves of citrus plants. All it needs to do is take one bite and the bacteria can spread to the entire tree, leaving the fruit unfit for sale.
Steve Crump, owner of Vo-LaSalle Farms in DeLeon Springs, is a fourth-generation citrus grower, and he said that in the last 15 years since the disease began impacting Florida, he has seen a major downturn in orange production.
“Greening disease lowered the quality of the fruit. It didn’t taste as good,” he said. “California sold crops that tasted better, and we had an inferior product.”
Still, as researchers try to produce crops resistant to the bacteria and find other ways to combat it, Crump is optimistic that the industry will turn back around.
“If we’re going to keep growing oranges in Florida, we’re going to do it differently than we’ve ever done it before,” he said.
— Noah Hertz