March/April 2000 Issue

Juicy Tours
A lesson in oranges at Sun Harvest

A gigantic inflatable orange makes it easy to find the parking lot entrance to Sun Harvest Citrus in Ft. Myers, on Metro Parkway at the intersection of Six Mile Cypress. Many visitors and residents know it as a convenient place to buy last-minute fruit and gifts on the way to Southwest Florida Regional Airport, but Sun Harvest is much more than a retail outlet.
   The 60-year-old family business, which grows citrus on Florida’s East Coast, built its 16,000-square-foot packinghouse and accompanying 4,000-square-foot retail store in Ft. Myers in 1991. Fruit arrives within hours of being harvested by hand, and machinery cleans, sorts, and sizes each piece. It is inspected four times before packing—a big job in itself as more than 60,000 citrus gift boxes and baskets are shipped annually from the packinghouse.
   From November through April, guides conduct daily behind-the-scenes half-hour tours of Sun Harvest’s “state-of-the-art packinghouse operations.” The tours begin on the hour from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations are not necessary except for groups of 10 or more.
   “We’re super busy in November and December. That’s when we do at least 80 percent of our business, so we hire extra help for the season,” says Jon Pearson, who manages the juice room and is in his sixth season with Sun Harvest. “Of course, off-season we’re busy, too.” Though the fresh fruit is not available year-round, Sun Harvest stays open, running its juicing operation all year. In May, the company puts a lot of fruit in cold storage, then gradually takes it out as needed.
   “Tourists are always here, and from overseas, too,” notes Pearson. “It’s almost as if it’s planned on their itinerary.”
   A wonderfully strong citrus aroma envelops visitors upon entering the hectic but cheery store. Several people stand by the Sun Harvest Café counter, ordering sherbets, tropical fruit smoothies, soft-serve ice cream, coffees, and pastries. An even bigger crowd gathers by the juice machines, serving themselves free samples of orange, strawberry orange, cranberry orange, and grapefruit juices and lemonade.
   Nearby are fresh-cut sections of navel oranges, red navels, star grapefruit, ruby red grapefruit, sunburst tangerines, Orlando tangelos, and other varieties. Customers taste the different kinds before buying their favorite whole fruits in big mesh bags.
   There is a huge selection of key-lime products, honey, candy, cookies, and fruit-flavored teas. Also for sale are T-shirts, linens, stationery, candles, citrus-based cleaning products, home juicing equipment, and recipe books, including For Citrus Only, written in the mid-1990s by four Sanibel-connected women.
   Some people sit at a big table, filling out order forms while helpful employees offer advice. At the custom basket counter, a woman watches an employee skillfully shrink-wrap her requested creation. Next to that counter is the tour waiting area.
   Employee Pat Schaberg introduces herself as our tour leader. “I learn something about fruit every day,” she says enthusiastically, as she starts our tour. She points to the nearby juice room, separated from us by a wall of windows. Inside are several employees, huge pieces of machinery, and more fast-moving oranges than could ever be counted.
   “Those oranges going up the conveyor belt have already been washed and rinsed twice, and inspected. They’re about to get what we call the ‘quick squeeze,’ which happens so quickly you can’t see it.”
   Oranges drop into five extractors with metal prongs. As soon as they are squeezed, the juice flows through pipes into two 600-gallon water-cooled tanks that are kept at 33 degrees Fahrenheit. From the tanks, the juice flows into a machine that rapidly fills empty plastic containers. The rinds go to a landfill.
   Many of these bottles will be sold right here at Sun Harvest. Others are distributed at grocery stores and food outlets around the area.
   Schaberg goes into the juice room and returns with a cored orange, taken from one of the extractor prongs. “We make sure we don’t do what people often do when juicing: They twist too close to the rind, and that’s what makes it bitter.”
   Sun Harvest grows 20 varieties of citrus on more than 2,000 acres in Vero Beach. A wall plaque states the groves are in the “verdant Indian River area of Florida. This exclusive growing region is situated on the shores of a tidal lagoon that stretches 120 miles on Florida’s East Coast, from Daytona to Palm Beach. The warm climate, rich soil, and near-perfect growing conditions combine to produce some of the world’s finest citrus.”
   The tour leader explains that even though the Indian River section is protected from the Atlantic Ocean, oranges still can suffer wind damage, which can be a common problem in Florida.
   At its orchards, Sun Harvest employs a full-time crew for harvesting, pruning, and fertilizing. “A normal commercial pick is 90 pounds that an employee will carry in a pouch up and down the tree,” Schaberg says. “Our employees are much gentler, as we do only 50 pounds.” She adds that the oranges are not picked in rain or during the early morning.
   “Food and Drug Administration classification means the prettiest, biggest, and best oranges are No. 1’s, which are sold as whole fruit. No. 2’s have windburn and are used as juice oranges. No. 3’s are cut or torn and are discarded.
   “We’re under FDA rules,” Schaberg continues, “and are a test study on how to make juice correctly. At the end of the day it takes longer for our employees to clean the machinery with little brushes than it does to juice and bottle.”
   Our group goes through a doorway into the vast packinghouse. As we stand by a few tables and chairs, Schaberg walks to a rolling cart equipped with a cutting board and several oranges and grapefruit. She points out some with windburn. “When it gets real windy, oranges get bounced around. But windburn is only topical. Because of the last hurricane up the coast, we’re seeing damage to the fruit.” She cautions us not to buy fruit with a cut, tear, or rip, because that allows bacteria in. She also recommends that we never leave citrus on the counter; instead, we should keep it in the coldest part of the refrigerator.
   Schaberg holds an orange with “bug tracking,” where a fly or aphid walked on the wet fruit. “It doesn’t hurt the inside because it doesn’t permeate the skin,” she explains. She also shows some other unusual examples, including a funny-looking grapefruit that developed a second bloom, and a star grapefruit twice as big as a softball.
   “You must all stay with me because of liability issues,” Schaberg warns while opening a small gate. The cavernous packinghouse is fairly silent since most employees are taking a break after many weeks of round-the-clock shifts for the holidays. She points to crates taking up much of the floor space. “The fruit comes in here in 900-pound bins with a mattress pad on the bottom. Our fruit doesn’t go in those big semis that you see on the road. Those are for the canneries.”
   Schaberg explains that when the citrus arrives, after being on trees for eight months, it is rinsed and inspected outside the packinghouse. Its next step is to roll onto a huge brush conveyor washer to be sprayed with mild detergent.
   We follow Schaberg as she climbs onto the side of the washer, which is not in operation. She says the citrus would get a secondary rinse through extra-soft brushes, then be semi-dried with a device like a hair dryer.
   “Time to add wax,” she says, pointing to two employees who are cleaning rollers where wax is sprayed on the fruit. “Mother Nature puts wax on, and we take a little bit off during the cleaning process. So we put back on a mild hypoallergenic, odorless, and tasteless wax to protect the fruit. Then it’s dried for two minutes at 100 degrees.”
   Next, the fruit is inspected by hand. Any No. 3 oranges that have evaded detection are put into a purple box. Schaberg points to orange and green trays that sort citrus by size. She explains, “It’s sorted automatically. A ball bearing is turned to set the gauge for bigger or smaller fruit.”
   Nearby, a man moves crates with a forklift and another man packs No. 1 oranges into mesh bags. Glossy paper inserts list “delicious low-calorie citrus recipes,” such as Florida tangerine bar cookies, and “easy-to-make crafts” that include the Florida citrus centerpiece and Florida citrus snow people.
   From November through April, climate-controlled trucks owned by the Florida Gift Fruit Association, based in Orlando, deliver the fruit to local post offices. “It stops the aging process,” the tour leader says, “as we guarantee our fruit a hundred percent.”
   At the end of the tour, Schaberg asks if any of us know how to cut fruit correctly. “I used to murder it when I lived up north,” she confesses. Most people cut right through the middle,” Schaberg says, holding an orange and a knife. “But when the fruit hangs on a tree, the sugar goes down so the top has acid. The very best way is like this: Cut the top and bottom off, then quarter the orange. Then cut a half-moon toward you and cut into the meat of the orange but not the membrane. Cut in between the membrane and then slice the fruit off the skin.”
   She does it quickly and expertly. Maybe with practice, I, too, can stop murdering my fruit.

For tour information, contact Sun Harvest Citrus, 14810 Metro Parkway, Ft. Myers, at 941/768-2686. For retail information, call 941/561-8000 or 800/743-1480. The Web site is www.sunharvestcitrus.com.