Learning about the Story of Citrus at Florida’s Natural Visitor Center

One of the things that Florida is known for is, you guessed it, is orange juice! The citrus industry has been playing a big role in Central Florida for many decades, and considering its importance, I wanted to learn a bit more about it.

So with the help of the Orlando Visitors and Convention Bureau I was able to locate “Florida’s Natural Growers”, a citrus-processing cooperative that produces the well-known “Florida’s Natural” brand of juices. The cooperative was founded in 1933 and today more than 1000 independent growers are part of this cooperative processing and marketing organization.

Florida’s Natural operates a 540 acre fruit processing center in Lake Wales, about an hour south of Orlando. They are now the largest employer in the Lake Wales area. The facility also offers a visitor center which educates tourists on the history of Florida’s citrus industry, and the science and processes behind citrus juice production.

Gift shop at the Florida’s Natural Visitor Center

I first viewed a 10 minute video which provided a very good overview of Central Florida’s citrus industry. The organizational structure of Florida’s Natural is quite interesting as well since it is not a corporately owned juice company like Minute Maid or Tropicana (owned by Coca-Cola and Pepsi Co. respectively), but rather it is a cooperative of local farmers that share in the production of the fruit and the juice. Florida’s Natural prides itself in doing things a little differently from the big juice companies and its unique nature is reflected in its motto:

– We own the land
– We own the fruit
– We own the company

Orange cultivation was originally introduced by the Spaniards several centuries ago. Grafting resulted in stronger and more resistant trees which produced fruit in 3 years instead of 15 years. Fruits are still picked by hand, put into containers, which are boxed and shipped by truck to the processing plant.

Classic orange juice advertising posters

A variety of quality control processes are applied and fruit is washed and separated by size by grading inspectors. About 95% of Florida’s orange harvest goes to juice production. Florida’s Natural extractor machines can handle about 13 million pounds of oranges every 24 hours. Once the fruit has been squeezed, a so-called finisher removes the seeds. Then the juice is flash-pasteurized and packaged.

The key thing about Florida’s Natural products is that they are not made from concentrate, but rather contain only pure unsweetened fruit juice. Different varieties of orange juice are stored and blended in order to ensure that the taste is consistent throughout the different harvests during the year. The organization prides itself that its juice is as close to the grove as you can get and it is the fastest growing not-from-concentrate brand. Florida’s Natural 64 ounce cartons are shipped all over the globe.

Different varieties of citrus fruits Historical posters of citrus fruit varieties

In addition to juice, every part of the orange is used to produce other products, such as orange oil, for example, while seeds and peel are processed into cattle feed. Florida’s Natural growers also believe in wildlife conservation and have created wildlife habitat areas while employing various methods for reducing water usage.

In addition to the video screening theater, the Visitor Center houses a gift shop in the front and a walk-through display area that provides information about various themes, including weather, the history of the citrus industry, the history of citrus juice packaging, two display panels on the indigenous species of wildlife, as well as a variety of classic orange juice advertising posters.

Local wildlife Florida’s Natural supports the protection of wildlife habitats

When I was done with the educational part of the Visitor Center I explored the Gift Shop where I found all sorts of souvenirs and citrus-related presents, including citrus-scented candles, jams, marmalades, creams, t-shirts, books, hats, everything you can imagine with a citrus theme. I picked up some orange-flavoured (and orange-shaped) Whetstone Chocolates as treats for my friends at home.

I also got to taste free samples of 4 varieties of juices which represent a good cross-section of Florida’s Natural product line, which includes different types of orange juice (with varying degrees of pulp and some with additions of vitamins or calcium), ruby red grapefruit juice, apple juice, cranberry apple cocktail, lemonade, raspberry lemonade, and lemonade ice tea.

Dropping by the Visitor Center at Florida’s Natural was a great introduction to one of the most important industries in Florida and gave me a real appreciation of everything that goes into producing that healthy, refreshing glass of orange juice that I enjoy in the morning.

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