Friday, January 20, 2012
HAINES CITY --
Not a long drive outside Haines City awaits a place where you would expect to find a tumble weed or two.
"We are in the middle of nowhere, admits Archie Ritch with a laugh, adding most folks comment, "WOW! I never knew this place was out here!"
The winter landscape in Central Florida is awash in a shade of tan, bordering on brown. The fields and grass are dry, while the trees are losing their leaves. But along a Polk City Road, you'll find a sweet spot that's all orange.
"People have found us over the years, Archie says excitedly. For almost two decades, Archie has protected Florida's reputation.
"When the oranges come in, we load them into the dumper, and then it goes to a washer bed, he says loudly, as if he's fighting to be heard over his farm's orange washing machinery.
Ritch is co-owner of the Ridge Island Groves. The family-owned orange grove and packing house is a popular winter destination in the heart of Florida.
"They can bag it here at the packing house or we can bag it for them, he says proudly from behind a mound of fresh oranges.
Archie, along with his wife Jill and their children, who all dress in orange, pride themselves on the free taste tests of the eight to 10 varieties of fruit available for sampling. They also take pride in an east coast vs. west coast rivalry.
"When you weigh a California orange vs.a Florida orange, the Florida orange is going to be much heavier, because our oranges are much juicier, which makes them better, he proclaims.
The ugly oranges that are pulled from the production line are squeezed and then turned into fresh Florida orange juice. It's a process that's wide open and available for free at Ridge Island Groves.
However, it doesn't get any fresher than picking it yourself. Behind the farm market awaits the groves.
For a small fee, Savannah Menchaca will take passengers into the groves so you can pick your own citrus.
"The right way to pick is to twist and pull, she teaches me. "It's kinda hard. If you don't know how, she admits.
A personal tour on an off-road golf cart will cost two people $10. The ride comes with a complementary empty bag that is to be used when picking your own produce and then hauling it home, at no additional charge. Several folks take the tour daily, each returning with huge smiles and a bag full of fresh oranges.
But there is more in these groves than just fruit.
"Tourists like to see the cows. They like to be so close to them. It's just a huge animal right there in front of you, says Chad Ritch, Archie and Jill's adult son who grew up in these groves.
After visiting with the cattle and picking oranges, few can leave without sampling the soft serve ice cream made from real Florida oranges.
That's Florida on a Tankful with Greetings from Haines City.