Meet the Growers: Jim and Babs Vitter
Grove Location: North of Clermont in South Lake County, Florida
Crops: 2 acres of Fall-Glo tangerines, 1 acre of Ruby Red and Flame grapefruit, .25 acre Honeybell tangelos, .25 persimmons
Uncle Matt’s Grower Since: 1999
Babs Vitter never thought she’d say she “loved” walking through the groves. But the grove on her and her husband’s property north of Clermont, Florida changed all that. After the last hard Florida freeze in 1989, Babs and Jim replanted their grove with one pine tree to every four citrus trees, taking the advice of her father and brother.
“It creates its very own environment and it’s absolutely gorgeous,” says Babs, who is also the real-life aunt of Uncle Matt. ”The pine trees provide protection from the frost and cold. And when you walk into that grove, it’s like walking into a different world. You can hear the pines rustling and take in the peacefulness of nature all around you. You’ve got the the birds and butterflies, the spiders, the trees. It is truly beautiful and everything in nature is there.”
The Vitters’ grove could be considered an “agro-forest,” a concept that’s catching on in the ecological scientific community and being studied in such places around the globe as Brazil, Cuba, and Africa. It is a method of actually double-cropping, where hardwoods and fruit crops are interplanted to provide each other with mutual benefits while also remaining sustainable.
Before becoming organic citrus growers in 1999, both Jim and Babs Vitter devoted their lives to teaching. Babs was an elementary school teacher for 33 years while Jim was a high school algebra and geometry teacher for 26 years after serving in the United States Air Force for four years. Back in 1982, Babs and Jim invested in groves with her brothers, where Babs’ five-acre grove adjoined her brothers’ larger groves on either side. In case she ever wanted to sell the grove, the brothers would have first right of refusal. Ironically, after the freezes of the late ’80s, it was her brothers who sold the adjoining groves, while Babs and Jim went on to organically farm the remaining five acres.
UM: Babs, we know “Uncle Matt” is actually your nephew, but tell us in your own words about your family’s history in citrus.
BABS: Yes, I grew up in a citrus family. My father, grandfather, and maternal great-grandfather were all citrus growers. My maternal grandfather, Dr. Shelton, was from Altoona, Florida and had groves up until the citrus freeze of the 1890s. My grandfather, Angus Benjamin, was from Bartow, Florida and was both a vegetable and citrus grower. My own father, William Benjamin McLean, also known as “Pappy,” was both a grower and consultant until he passed away in 2003.
UM: That’s a rich history in citrus. Yet, both of you went on to devote your lives to the worthwhile vocation of teaching. After being teachers for so long, did you ever think you’d come full circle and become part-time organic citrus growers?
BOTH: (laughing) No!
UM: When you first started, were you organic or not?
JIM: We bought the grove in ’82 and it was not organic. But then it froze in ’83, ’85, ’87, and ’89. In 1990, we replanted the grove that is there today.
BABS: My younger brother, Scott, convinced us to replant after the 1989 freeze, and when he did he put in one pine tree to every four citrus trees, which was actually laid part of the foundation for our organic program.
UM: So, tell us how your organic grove finally came to fruition.
BABS: When [Uncle] Matt and Benny [Matt’s dad and Babs’ brother] started converting their groves to organic, they approached us about farming ours organically and joining their organic family of growers. It was a fit for us because Jim doesn’t like using [synthetic] fertilizer anyway. He had also listened to my dad talk about what a tree needs and how you can overstimulate it [with synthetic fertilizer] just to get production. And you kill the tree! Instead, you need to think about the tree and think about the soil –– that’s the important thing.
UM: Jim, were there any other influencing factors in becoming organic citrus growers?
JIM: Back then, we were taking Blue Green Algae as a nutritional dietary supplement. All the vegans eat that, you know. So we were listening to all those people talk about the health benefits of organic and it prompted us in that direction.
UM: What do you think about the quality of the fruit you’re producing today?
JIM: It’s beautiful.
BABS: It’s very juicy and very flavorful. We’ve had different people comment on both the fruit and the grove. When the USDA came into our grove, they commented on the health of the fruit and the trees.
JIM: By focusing on the health of the tree, it’s natural for beautiful fruit to come from it. Not to mention, we’ve had very little trouble with pests.
UM: Does that go back to Pappy’s philosophy of growing?
JIM: Yes. On the other side of the coin, Pappy believed you started an unwanted cycle when you sprayed [synthetic pesticides]. It killed things you didn’t want to kill and then you had to compensate for that by doing something else.
UM: Does your organic fruit production speak for itself?
BABS: We think so. The first time we sold our certified organic fruit to Matt, it graded out at 90-something percent which means that all of our fruit packed out at the highest level.
UM: Finish this sentence: I’m glad I’m an organic citrus grower because…
JIM: It keeps my wife healthy.
BABS: Because I believe in my dad, and I see that he that he knew what he was talking about when it came to nutrition and observing the trees and letting the tree tell you what it needs.