Looking out over 20 acres of farmland in Central Florida’s South Lake county, David Kester has a vision –– a vision to someday see 2,000 Sugar Belle citrus trees thriving and producing sweet and healthy organic fruit three years from late 2016. David represents just a handful of organic citrus growers in Lake County that would dream that big.
Due to freezes and diseases, Lake County citrus acreage has been in steady decline. Before the 1983 hard freeze, Lake County boasted over 123,000 acres of citrus in commercial production. Today, that number has plummeted to below 10,000 acres.
David wants to help change that. Since moving to Florida in 2015, David contemplated planting palm trees or hay on his acreage, but is now firmly decided on organic citrus, believing that Florida’s iconic crop can rise and thrive once again in Sunshine State. Partnering with Uncle Matt’s Organic, David is eager to increase the yields of his current organic crop of Orlando Tangelos and Starburst Tangerines, and is looking forward to planting 14 more acres of the peel-and-eat, “bell-shaped” Sugar Belles, a variety that is a mandarin hybrid –– a mix of the sweet Clementine and the colorful, bell-shaped Minneola.
We caught up with David the same day the Uncle Matt’s production team was out on the farm planning and prepping for the Sugar Belle grove planting scheduled for Late October 2016.
UMO: You’re new to the organic farming industry as of this year. When you purchased your property last year, though, you stepped right into the role of farmer. Tell us about how that happened.
David: My past experience with farming has been cultivating family gardens only. When we purchased our farm in 2015, there were already about 300 Orlando tangelos and Starburst tangerines growing on six of the acres on our property that had been certified organic years ago. As my wife and I would walk through the groves in the morning we’d watch the sun rise behind the grove and I told her, “I think we have an opportunity here. There’s going to be some oranges on these trees!” You hate the thought of them hitting the ground and not being picked. The previous owner abandoned taking care of those trees and the trees hadn’t been fertilized in any way for the past five years. So, after meeting the Uncle Matt’s team, it wasn’t difficult to get that acreage re-certified organic in the fall of 2015. That was an important first step in my partnership with Uncle Matt’s.
UMO: We love our partnerships with small family growers like you!
David: In my previous vocation, our company was really big into “teams.” And that’s what I was looking for as I stepped into this new arena: a good team. I found that with Uncle Matt’s. I provide the land and they put up the expertise –– everything from the fertilizer protocol to harvesting and sales.
UMO: So, you’ve already had your first organic crop with Uncle Matt’s?
David: As a matter of fact, yes, we have. In January, we picked our first Tangelo crop and about 60% of it went for produce and 40% to juice.
UMO: Are you excited about your next crop?
David: Yes! Since I’m new to citrus, every year is a learning experience and I’m hoping we’re going to get a better yield after implementing Uncle Matt’s organic fertilizer program.
UMO: Did you ever consider planting a different crop on your property?
David: Actually, we did. We had considered palm trees or hay, for our horses. Historically, citrus had done very well in this area and I came to have a vision for this citrus project. I thought if Benny and Dave [from Uncle Matt’s production team] could help me establish a working, profitable citrus grove outside of the seven acres we already had for our house and the horse paddocks, it would be a great use of the land and a worthwhile endeavor for me.
UMO: How would you articulate your organic farming vision?
David: I looked around and saw our house and horses, and then I pictured this thriving citrus grove on our remaining land that would reflect Clermont of the past. My vision is to see row after row of Sugar Belles that would not be bit by a freeze or infected with greening.
UMO: Organic can be a more expensive and labor-intensive method of farming, why did you still choose to go organic being a new grower?
David: While it is both more expensive and labor intensive, I still believe you get a greater return for your efforts. I still go out there with a shovel and hoe to clean up what they can’t get with the bush-hog. I dig up the weeds, pull down vines out of the trees, believing that by doing so, we’ll get more boxes of fruit come next harvest.
UMO: How often are you out working in your grove?
David: I work underneath the trees myself four to five times a week for about four hours at a time. My neighbor will brown out his weeds with a chemical spray, but I go out there with a mower and a shovel and get rid of them by hand. I go out there until the sun chases me in!
UMO: When do you plan on planting the new 14 acres of Sugar Belles?
David: If we can get the land ready and the irrigation installed, we’re looking at late October of this year .
UMO: And that starts a 3-year process…
David: I even think it might take five years for a harvest, but the Uncle Matt’s team is looking at a first harvest in three years.
UMO: Oh so worth the wait! Do you agree?
David: Absolutely. Coming from out-of-state, I think Floridians take for granted the ability to walk out your back door and pick a bag of oranges to make fresh orange juice from November to March. It’s just awesome. Every time you drink fresh-squeezed organic orange juice, it just eminates health!
UMO: What makes you feel proud about being an organic grower?
David: We’re proud that these trees are producing healthy oranges and there’s nothing synthetic about it. Sunshine from heaven and water from the rains –– combined with a little elbow grease –– is all that was done for last year’s crop. So, when we drink our own juice from our own groves, it’s a good feeling knowing that no one has touched it but us. That’s the first part. Second, it’s a great feeling to know that you’re giving back. When they loaded up the truck with 270 boxes of organic oranges, it felt good to know that we helped bring healthy, organic produce into the marketplace.
UMO: The “eat local” movement resonates with a lot of moms out there who want to know where their food comes from.
David: Even if you pay a little more for local, you’re saving all that pollution that comes from this produce being shipped thousands of miles before it’s consumed.
UMO: What have you found to be the most challenging part of stepping into the organic farming industry in Florida?
David: Probably just patience. In a society where you can’t do things quick enough, there’s not shortcut to producing quality citrus. When you’re talking about growing citrus, you’re talking about planting trees now, so you’ll have a healthy crop three years from now. In a business cycle, that’s very slow.
UMO: Where do you hope to be five years from now with Kester Groves?
David: Five years from now, I hope to look out my window and see 20 rows of Sugar Belles healthy and producing. Alongside our horses and home, a thriving organic citrus grove makes our farm complete.