He approached my great-uncles with a plan to buy old orange groves and land around them. As practical men, whose lives had assumed the look of comfortable days, the locals were polite, but not interested.
Still the young suitor did not give up, having heard a new product, concentrated orange juice, was in the experimental stage, and oranges, by the ton, would be part and parcel of the venture.
With old Virginia money to back him up, he married my cousin and bought dozens of orange groves at just the right time. Then he sold them to Tropicana, a big juice company, built a very nice house on a lake and played a lot of golf.
For years at family gatherings, my great-uncles told his story with the hangdog expressions of those who refused Coca-Cola stock for pennies on the dollar.
Fifty years later, those old groves of rusty Florida oranges and hundreds of acres of citrus trees in the state are fighting a disease that infects the trees, causing the fruit to turn sour, leaving it green to never ripen.
Hundreds of thousands of trees have been cut down and burned and remaining ones sprayed to contain the disease, but it is a plague that cannot be stemmed.
The enemy is the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny insect, sucking bacteria out of one orange tree, then infecting another. The female lives only one month, but can lay 800 eggs in that time, leaving her offspring to spread citrus greening for a mile without stopping to rest.
In a plot sounding like a mystery detective’s worst nightmare, owners of a half-million acres of groves in Florida sent scientists to the far corners of the earth in search of a naturally immune tree to be used as a miniscule Eve, beginning a new line of ancestry, a strain of orange trees not vulnerable to citrus greening. None were found.
And the plot thickened. Possibly, the old trees in Florida would, in time, develop a natural resistance to the bacteria, but how long would it take? Decades? The citrus industry in the Sunshine State is big business, $9 billion a year with thousands of jobs on the line.
Indian River fruit is a staple in winter months and America loves her orange juice.
Besides, we’re talking native treasure here with a history stretching back to Spanish explorers.
Though reading tells us today’s oranges are hybrids, the results of grafting a sweet, prolific variety onto a tough cousin, a lemon, perhaps, giving birth to both resistance to disease and good flavor, they do not take to crossbreeding.
When we pick up a bottle of orange juice in the grocery store, we are bringing to the breakfast table a blend of juices from Valencias and Hamlins, two old Florida citrus pioneers with beginnings in a tropical world and centuries old China.
If we believe “it is not where a gene comes from, but what it does,” to quote a researcher, then we accept tinkering with DNA as a path to improve the survival chances of a vegetable or fruit to fight off disease.
Apparently, we’ve been eating genetically modified foods for years. Still, the gamble for the citrus industry is whether millions of dollars invested in trials to genetically alter Florida’s ailing orange trees will meet with public acceptance.
Will we drink transgenic orange juice made from oranges infused with a gene from spinach, offering a protein to attack the bacteria causing citrus greening?
It may sound like a mad scientist is in the laboratory, but the alternative choice is a heavy dose of pesticides which, so far, have not controlled the disease.
When that fruit basket arrives at Christmas, respect will be due!
Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.