Right off Airport-Pulling Road, a busy Naples traffic artery, amid shopping centers and gated communities, sits a working orange grove. With about 15,000 trees on 150 acres, it’s no backyard operation, but to the Pulling family, the citrus farm is just that.
In the early 1900s, a northern child’s most-cherished gift might have been a big, juicy Florida orange, an exotic treasure at the time. The Southwest Florida coast would have been the source of that treat, blessed as it was with a Gulf-derived richness of calcium in the soil that led the citrus to be praised as the best-tasting in the world.
John Pulling, Sr. (1915-2005), began his permanent Naples residence in 1934 and became an influential civic and business leader. He took over Temple Citrus Grove in 1970. Today, his son, John Jr., daughter, Michelle McCauley and her husband Bill manage the grove and store, which offers 30 varieties of oranges, tangelos, tangerines, grapefruit, lemons and limes.
In addition to retail sales at the store, they ship their products all over the world. Customers can take away the bagged and boxed fruit themselves or subscribe to monthly shipments. The harvest seasons extends from November to June, because different varieties ripen at different times. Fortunately, damage from a recent cold spell was light, Bill explained, because the grove is located just a few miles from the Gulf.
It turns out that the most popular variety of orange is not an orange at all. The honeybell, or Minneola tangelo, is a hybrid of a Dancy tangerine and a Duncan grapefruit. Other popular species are Valencia, temple, murcott (honey tangerine) and grapefruit. There are a few specialties, like the pummelo, said to be the ancient Oriental progenitor of all grapefruit, grown on only a dozen or so trees.
Out in the grove, the feeling of isolation is powerful. There are no signs that you are in the middle of a city, just row after row of beautiful green and orange. Michelle says, “We have our little habitat here. I’ve even seen coyotes back here.”
Once available as a U-Pick-It attraction, the grove is no longer open to the public because of the threat of citrus canker contamination. Canker is a statewide threat to the citrus industry that Temple Citrus Grove has managed to avoid. After it is picked, the fruit undergoes a multi-step process that includes washing, chlorine sterilization, fungicide waxing, drying and sizing before it is offered to the public or packed for shipping.
The citrus raised by the grove is not organic. According to Michelle, “We already have people who say, ‘This fruit not perfect.’ We can’t see doing that [going organic] until people are ready to change.” Bill points out that organic techniques also result in lower yields.
The store carries much more than citrus. There’s the orange blossom honey, a byproduct of hives maintained onsite to provide sufficient pollination of the trees; a large assortment of sugarless jams and syrups, gourmet jellies, sauces, condiments and more. They’re not kidding about fresh-squeezed orange juice, either – just try a free sample and you’ll be hooked.
Store hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Mon.-Sat. and 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun., from November to March. Ritchey’s Produce occupies a portion of the building, with a wide selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. Info: 6500 Airport-Pulling Road, 597-6192, templecitrus.com