Visit John Painter, Jr.’sPantropic Grove, and you get an eye-opening lesson in tropical fruit production. Exotic fruit from around the world fascinated Painter from the moment he moved from Connecticut to Pine Island, Fla.
He discovered that, on Pine Island, located in the Gulf of Mexico just off Fort Myers, the climate was as ideal for producing cold-sensitive fruit as just about anywhere in the U.S. The water surrounding the island tends to keep it a bit warmer than the mainland.
“A lot of the time,” he says, “there are two places in the county where fruit will survive and not get hit as hard by freezes. The other one, unfortunately, has been pretty much built up with condos.”
But one place in Florida that might be better, Homestead, quickly intrigued him.
“Most of what I know about tropical fruit came from the Homestead area. I spent a lot of time there at the Fruit and Spice Park, and became friends with Chris Rollins, the manager. He taught me a lot about how to grow fruit trees and about the medicinal value of some of the plants,” Painter says.
The park, operated by the Tropical Fruit & Vegetable Society of The Redland, has 37 acres of trees and plants, and is designed to teach as well as entertain visitors.
Painter also spent many hours closely observing the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden at Homestead, with its 83 acres full of interesting and rare plants and trees.
Established in 1936 by Robert Montgomery, a local businessman and plant collector, the garden is named for David Fairchild, a widely-traveled plant explorer credited with bringing mangoes, alfalfa, nectarines, dates, horseradish, bamboo and flowering cherries to the U.S. After retiring to Miami in 1935, Fairchild planted some of his personal collection in the garden, which eventually was deeded to Miami-Dade County.
“What an impressive placethe Fairchild Garden is,” Painter says. “They say Dr. Fairchild was friends with Thomas Edison, who had his place here in Fort Myers, and that they would trade plants back and forth. People say Edison had friends on Pine Island and he got some of these cultivars to the island that way, through them, and they’re some of the old favorites here.”
With all that in his head, Painter went to work on his 12.5 acres. From the street, it looks as though he lives in a subdivision in Bokeelia, with maybe a handful of trees growing in the backyard. What he has, though, will surprise most visitors, since it amounts to a fairly sizable grove of big trees.
“I don’t want any more,” he says. “This is all I can handle. I grow a lot of varieties, and there’s a lot to keep track of back here.”
Although his property may look like a tropical wonderland, it didn’t happen overnight.
“More than 20 years of learning has gone into this,” Painter says. “I took courses, read books, listened to people talk, and tasted fruit. I learned a lot. In 20 years, you’re bound to learn something.”
He may be most captivated by the jackfruit he grows. The tree, native to India also grown throughout Southeast Asia, eastern Africa and Brazil, produces huge fruit that can weigh 80 pounds. Painter’s will hit 60 pounds each. The fruit tends to be starchy, with a taste described by some as like a banana with a bite.
“It’s the largest tree fruit in the world,” Painter says. “I just like having them here. They’re kind of an oddity because the fruit is so big.”
Of all the fruit he grows, he may have worked most carefully with mangoes. He says there are at least 2,000 cultivars, plenty to pick from, but that makes it difficult to focus on a few selections.
“Some are super sweet with no acid. I like an acid balance. I looked at mangoes from Southeast Asia, from India, from the Americas. A lot of times there was no availability for what I wanted, so I did grafting. I brought a Hawaiian cultivar here and did grafting from it.
“I wanted gourmet fruit — good stuff. I went to tastings at the Fruit and Spice Park or wherever people were working with mangoes, and evaluated over 100 cultivars. A few stood out and made the rest seem kind of bland. I chose the ones that stood out.”
Painter grows other tropical fruit, as well: sweet-tasting longan, sweet-smelling lychee, both Asian natives, carambola, or starfruit, from Southeast Asia, and avocados, which originated in Mexico and were used by the Aztecs, along with whatever else happens to strike his fancy.
“The starfruit are pretty interestinG,”he says. “They hate soil temperature below 70 degrees. They perform better here than in the sweet soil of Homestead because they like acidity. The same thing is true of the lychees. Some lychees are highly sought by Asians. One is called ‘chicken tongue’ and is very sweet.”
From the front of the property, this may look like a subdivision. Back in the grove, though, it’s clearly an ag business, and Painter wants the world to know that.
“This is a commercial operation — it’s not a hobby, it’s a business. I couldn’t do this part-time. The thing I decided up front was that I was going into it as a business or not going into it at all.”
Marketing his fruit is no problem at all; in fact, buyers find him, mostly by word of mouth.
“I have major buyers who will buy large quantities of things like jackfruit. They are mostly Asian, and they can move a lot of fruit. The island became known to the Asians as a fruit destination, and they will plan a trip here around the fruit season.
“Most of my buyers are from Tampa and Orlando, up in that area. Sometimes, when they don’t get a crop in the Miami area, they will come here. Demand has increased every year, thank God. I was pretty worried when the economy got bad a few years ago. But that didn’t slow us down — for every customer we lose, we get about one and a third new ones to replace them.”
Selling to the Asian market requires learning about the tastes of different Asian regions, Painter says, along with a bit of the various languages.
“You’ve got to know the different names in Thai, Lao, Vietnamese or whatever it might be, even for a place like Guyana.”
But, Painter stresses that his fruit is not just for Asians, as evidenced by the drive-up tourists and local customers who buy his products during the season.
“Regular Americans who try them do like them,” he says. “How could anyone not like them?”
He stays busy during the so-called slow periods making nutritional sprays to boost tree production. He also keeps a wary eye out for pests of all types.
“South Florida gets all kindsof exotic pests,” Painter says. “There’s a new whitefly that came here from Guatemala, and started in Miami in 2009. All of a sudden, it showed up here. It’s affecting the palm tree growers really badly because it leaves mold on the leaves. They’re trying to get down to Guatemala and find a parasite for it. Controlling it is very attainable.
“There’s also a Sri Lankan weevil here now, which chews up nearly everything. There’s plenty to keep me busy around here.”
His trees grow in perennial peanuts, the kind that don’t set pods or make edible peanuts. A legume, they build nitrogen levels in the soil.
“I use a lot of old-fashioned organic soil amendments. These trees don’t require much nitrogen fertilizer; they need some potassium and minor elements. The trees are vigorous — as much as anything, I have to slow them down.
“A lot of the same ideas that work for citrus are very applicable to this type of fruit production. We use the same types of fertilizer, the same ideas about tree spacing — it’s all the same.
“I have fruit from all around the world, just about everything that can grow here. I have things from Africa, Asia and South America. All you have to do is look around and you’ll see something different, maybe something you haven’t seen before.”
Pine Island may be renowned for its warmth, even in winter months, but Painter still closely watches the weather patterns.
“I worry about cold snaps. I agree that Pine Island does tend to be warmer than the mainland, but that isn’t always the case. If we get a traditional cold spell, the island tends to be the same as the mainland. If there’s an invective cold spell, it’s a lot warmer than on the mainland,” Painter says.