A Brief History of Florida Oranges
Spanish explorers brought the orange to America in the early 16th century. Legend has it Ponce del Leon himself planted the first citrus trees in Florida as he searched for the Fountain of Youth. Oranges, lemons and later grapefruit were planted by farmers in port cities like St. Augustine and Tampa Bay. But only the orange became popular with local populations.
Citrus groves were a fairly common site in Florida by the 19th century, but shipping costs were prohibitive. Farmers had to load Florida oranges in crates and send them north on horse-drawn wagons. If the shipments were being sent out of state, they often had to be carried by barge and later by steamboat. As you might imagine, the Florida oranges that actually survived the long journey were often far from fresh.
In spite of these obstacles, the popularity of Florida oranges continued to grow and a small commercial citrus industry was established in the 1840s. Of course, most of this fruit was sold in state, but some of the larger growers did ship citrus north.
By the time the railroad came to Florida in the 1870s, farmers were producing more oranges then they could sell in state. Before long freight trains loaded with citrus crates were making their way up the east coast. Florida oranges could be delivered to cities as far north as Boston in only a matter of days.
By the turn of the century, the orange was one of the most popular fruits in America and Florida was its top producer. But increased competition from California was a growing concern. It was said that the California navel orange was the tastiest orange on earth.
Fortunately, Florida oranges had advantages of their own. For one thing, they were much heavier and juicer than oranges from the west coast. This made them the juicing orange of choice. There was just one problem. Fresh juice went bad after a few days out in the open. This meant that it could not be shipped or properly stored.
But with the introduction of the home refrigerator in 1911 and the popularization of pasteurization, orange juice became safe to ship and to store. Shortly thereafter, the first orange juice processing plants began to open across the Sunshine State.
At last count there were over 20 plants that process Florida oranges in the state. These facilities are responsible turning 95 percent of the annual orange crop into juice. Most of this OJ is sold in ready to drink bottles or containers. About a quarter of it is frozen and shipped in concentrated form.
Florida oranges currently account for about ninety percent of the orange juice Americans drink. The rest is processed in California, Arizona and Texas.