Florida is the third largest beef-producing state east of the Mississippi. We grow most of the houseplants sold in the country. The Sunshine Stateleads the world, certainly, in theme parks. Oranges, however, are Florida’s liquid gold. 80% of America’s orange juice comes from Florida, and Florida is the world’s top grapefruit producer.
How, exactly, though, are oranges (or grapefruit or orange juice) a detour or a diversion? Well, up until relatively recently in Pinellas history, citrus fans could tour Orange Blossom Groves on US 19 and watch as conveyor belts sorted oranges as they came into the plant from the expansive grove behind it. They could then proceed to a separate tasting room to taste fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice. Sadly, those days are gone. However, just south of the Sunshine Skyway The Citrus Place still trades in liquid gold.
WHAT: Ben Tillett opened The Citrus Place in the 1970s as a “You Pick” grapefruit business. When citrus canker struck his groves a few years later he could only allow workers to go into the groves. The Citrus Place became a packing house and ultimately progressed to a packing and shipping business. Today, the Tillett family still owns the grove and the shop in front that sells citrus, juice, jams, jellies, and fruit sections.
WHY: Even citrus growers admit that the Florida citrus industry is coughing a death rattle, despite what the Florida Department of Citrus’ marketing says. Tropicana and Minute Maid get much of their juice from Brazil.
Tasting fresh Florida juice, much less unpasteurized and locally grown and squeezed juice, will be something people tell their grandchildren about, not something they take their grandchildren to do. If you’ve never tried fresh- truly fresh- juice, you might not know what you’re missing. Go find out.
WHO: Ben and his wife Vera work the grove and shop with their son, Sid, and two other employees.
WHEN: The Citrus Place is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
WHERE: Find The Citrus Place at 7200 US 19 in Terra Ceia. They’re a 20-minute (roughly) drive from the south end of 275. Take 275 south over the Sunshine Skyway to the first exit, US 19, and bear right. It’s your very first left or your next U-turn. If you can’t make it across the Sunshine Skyway and need your orange juice fix, you can get their juice at the Bayway Country Store (on the Bayway heading towards Tierra Verde, 867-7507.)
BEST part: The juice. While it probably doesn’t taste like liquid gold, it’s how liquid gold should taste. It’s worth the short drive for a free sample and the opportunity to buy some to bring home.
WORST part: Oddly, the oranges don’t come from the grove behind the shop anymore, but the Tillett family still gets their citrus from Florida: Odessa and Parrish. Similarly, the days of picking your own citrus or watching the huge sorting machine do its work are also gone, but the juice is still there, very fresh and still tasting like Florida’s “liquid gold.”
The Citrus Place is a storefront and doesn’t charge admission, although they do offer free samples of juice and fresh fruit sections. Call them at (941) 722-6745 with questions or requests. Cash only.