PETE SPYKE checks the ripeness of a Honeybell Minneola tangelo in his Ft Pierce Fla grove

PETE SPYKE checks the ripeness of a Honeybell Minneola tangelo in his Ft. Pierce, Fla., grove.

Pete Spyke: In search of fruit with a ‘wow’ bite

Walking amongHoneybell Minneolatangelos in his grove west of Ft. Pierce, Fla., Pete Spyke’s passion for the citrus business takes center stage.

He inspects the fruit, rubs leaves between his fingers, scrutinizes tree trunks, and checks water lines. He’s ready for change and these trees are key in Spyke’s design to rejuvenate the industry for small acreage growers.

“I realize that the industry has gone in the other direction,” he says. “Eighty percent of the citrus we raise in Florida is oranges and about 90 percent of that goes for juice, which is a commodity business.

“Most of the other 20 percent  of our acreage is grapefruit, which is heavily exported now, and is also dominated by large growers and is a commodity business, as well. The nature of a commodity business is that it tends to consolidate into larger operations with lower overhead. They have a smaller profit margin and make it up in volume.

“The specialty side of the citrus business is much, much smaller than juice and grapefruit, but has the potential to become a key part of rebuilding and maintaining the industry. There are a huge number of new varieties in the pipeline. Also, direct marketing is big now and gives opportunity to smaller growers.”

Spyke thinks small growers are at a competitive disadvantage in the orange juice market. That changes in the specialty market.

“The small grower actually has the advantage in the specialty market. There, the grower gets paid for paying attention to details. That’s something difficult for big growers to do. It’s an opportunity for the industry to regain what was lost when Florida went just about totally to the juice business.”

He agrees that his thinking is a bit out of the industry mainstream, but at least he thinks. Building a system small acreage growers can use to not only survive but thrive occupies his thoughts these days. He’s putting his theories into practice on his own land.

Planted at high density, irrigated with an open hydroponics system — high frequency pulse irrigation — no pesticide has touched these honeybells in over a year. They’re not organic. Spyke uses commercial fertilizer, spoon-fed to the trees through continuous drip irrigation. He believes in the organic philosophy, but reserves those techniques for when they’re most practical.

He thinks these same techniques, which he calls advanced production systems, could help bigger-acreage growers, too, by speeding tree growth and pushing them into commercial production faster. That could let growers make money sooner on a particular block of trees before they could be attacked by citrus greening disease.

“We can’t count on trees living as long, now that citrus greening is in the picture. Advanced production systems could enable growers to get a return on their investment faster.

“With open hydroponics, we drip water on the trees slowly all day, with a nutrient solution in the water. We give the tree exactly what it needs for that day — we don’t waste anything. It brings the roots right to the top. Altogether, it gives more control over how the trees grow, saves water and fertilizer, and most importantly, saves a lot of money. This system costs less than using microjets. It rewards attention to detail: the more detailed you are, the better it works.”

Spyke designed and built the open hydroponics system at Water Conserv II, the Univeristy of Florida’s experimental grove at Winter Garden. That project compares drip and microjet irrigation systems with open hydronics. 

Practicality rates high with Spyke, a third-generation citrus grower and former area Extension agent who operates Arapaho Citrus Management. High density planting, like these Honeybells planted 360 trees to the acre, could help. So could open hydroponics irrigation, he says. The biggest factor, though, may be changing the small grower’s self-image.

There’s no point in competing with big acreage growers in a commodity business like orange juice or grapefruit, Spyke says.

He thinks small acreage growers should be selling fresh fruit and growing older, more tasty varieties, along with brand-new ones just being developed for that market. If they will replant groves with these varieties using his production system, he thinks they may gain a competitive edge.

He points to California as an example of growers taking advantage of the fresh market with new genetics.

“They developed naturally seedless, easy peeling super sweet tangerine types called Cuties. They’re also putting nets over older trees during bloom to keep bees out; the idea is to get them to be seedless. They have about 35,000 to 40,000 acres, and returns per acre are very, very high.”

The so-called California Cuties came on the market about a decade ago and were developed by Sun Pacific. There are two types of mandarins. Clementines are available during the early part of California’s season, beginning in November. Murcotts come in later and wind up the season in April.

Breeders at the University of Florida, University of California and USDA are busily developing new varieties of the Cutie type. Spyke believes Florida could do well in that market.

“Because of our climate, they will produce more juice here and they’ll get ripe sooner — a month to six weeks earlier than a California tree. We could almost be done with them by the time the California fruit comes on the market, so we could expand that whole market. There’s a market window for us.

“The potential is there for a relatively small percentage of the Florida industry to be devoted to these easy peeling, seedless tangerines. The big juice fruit companies are not interested in that. They’re interested in producing more boxes of fruit per acre on the slim margins they have in the commodity business. If anybody does it, it will be small growers.”

Another plus: these mandarins have a greater tolerance to citrus greening.

"Until we learn more about greening,” Spyke says, “we need to try to get new varieties planted to see how they’re affected by greening. Early indications are that the tolerance is there in the mandarins.”

The Honeybells he likes so much thrive where a grove was pushed out in the citrus canker eradication program several years ago. They are also located in an area infested with citrus greening.

“They are pretty tolerant to canker and greening,” he says. “They are 100 percent infected. The diseases are totally endemic. But they are looking good, thanks to our production system. The Honeybells are pretty resistant to greening.”

Spyke knows firsthandhow much consumers like tasty Florida fresh fruit. A decade ago, he and his wife, Cindy, bought The Orange Shop, a retail store located on U.S. Highway 301 in Citra, north of Ocala. Surprisingly, he just replanted a grove near the store, one with a history of freezing out.

“That area has a great history in the Florida citrus business. The soil is great citrus soil. Quite a few of the places around there have citrus names, like Citra. But, cold is a real threat there. What we’re doing in the grove at Citra is different from what we do further south — the irrigation there is primarily intended for cold protection.”

The retail location did reasonably well, but the realities of 21st century marketing pushed them in a new direction. They quickly learned to use the Internet to market fruit across the nation. In the process, they discovered just how much consumers love fresh and tasty citrus.

“We changed the Orange Shop from marketing gifts to focus on citrus varieties. Last year I made an announcement that I wanted to ship more varieties than any shipper in the country, and I did that.

“We’re trying to find small quantities even of unusual citrus varieties. We’ll announce them for a week and see what kind of demand there is. We’ve sold varieties consumers will never see in a grocery store. Confirmed people out there appreciate great fruit and recognize what a special thing it is.”

Spyke says he’s a rarity even in the fresh fruit world.

“The traditional fruit distribution network can’t accommodate the delicate short shelf-life varieties,” he says. “Most of these are old varieties that have been around 20- to 100 years. We find blocks out there somewhere, make sure they’re picked and then have them shipped to the shop.”

When the fruit looks too blemishedfor the fresh market, Spyke turns it into juice, where he’s also found a good market.

“We don’t call it orange juice — we make ours of different tangerines and oranges to try to get interesting flavors. We have a great following in the farmers market of those who want to see what this week’s juice tastes like. There’s a flavor rush when you get this stuff.

“Under the commodity model, you’re not allowed to do that — every glass of orange juice should taste like every other glass. But this is different, on the edges of the mainstream, and it gives us the opportunity to provide people with unique experiences.”

In a production system using little or no pesticide, blemished fruit is bound to be common, and that means juice is important even for the fresh fruit grower.

“If you have a natural system, some fruit is going to look bad,” Spyke says. “You have to accept that. It’s funny, though — blemished fruit usually has the best flavor for juice. Blending different varieties together makes it more interesting, too. If you can get it into balance, it can be pretty good.

“I’m okay with the way we’re doing it in these groves. The main thing we’re after is internal quality of the fruit. The open hydroponics allows us to get water and fertilizer there that the fruit needs.

“We can grow fruit with higher sugar content, especially on younger trees,” Spyke says. “It gives the fruit good taste. I want that first bite of my fruit to pack a punch. I want it to be a ‘wow’ bite.”

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