MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — This story is a shoutout to Florida Citrus Grove farmers.
Citrus greening has been a problem in Florida since first detected in 2005. It reached every county by 2015.
That means farmers in the Tampa Bay area are now dealing with the lower fruit output.
Add to that pandemic-related tree shortages and it’s enough to test the grit of anyone working this land, but not Vera Tillett from The Citrus Place in Terra Ceia.
“I come in seven days a week to work and usually the first thing I do when I get here is make key lime pie. Then I start on sectioning fruit.”
Tillett is known for her key lime pie. In fact, it’s how we met.
And if sectioning fruit had belts—Tillett’s would be black.
She’s been doing it since she arrived here as a new bride from North Florida.
“Probably 60 years,” Tillett said.
She left her other gig, teaching elementary school, a few years back. She and her late husband were both FSU-educated teachers.
And farmers too. Their citrus grove is on seven precious acres of land in Manatee County near the foot of the Skyway Bridge.
“It’s quite nice,” said Tillett, walking in the grove. "But we’ve had so much trouble with the disease that affects the tree and when we get ready to replant, we can’t get new trees."
As they wait for new trees in the ongoing pandemic supply chain issue, they continue to harvest the healthy ones.
“We go out and we pick one, cut it, sample it and find out. Of course we know generally when they are ripe and so we can go with that,” said Tillett. “The fact that a green one and a yellow one are on the same tree has nothing to do with ripeness.
And to meet customer demand, Tillett brings in extra local oranges.
Once combined and sorted with theirs, they go to the juicing room, where Tilllet’s grandchildren are culling any problem oranges
“I’m looking for any kind of imperfections, any holes in the fruit or signs of canker or greening,” said Carlton Tillett. “The rotten ones go into the auger and up into a trailer to be disposed of."
Those, along with all the peels, are a treat for their cattle neighbors.
And the intense citrus smell?
“You get used to it,” he said
Nearby, Cameron Tillett bottles the cooled juice, getting it ready for the store
The brothers are both invested in this future.
“I get to do a lot here building, do all the repairs and keeping everything going,” said Cameron Tillett.
They are the fourth generation of Tilletts to work the Manatee County land. Vera wants them to pass it on.
“But it depends on the fruit—what happens there—we are hoping,” said Tillett. “And we are making each year so that’s what counts. And I still enjoy coming to work.”