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From the ashes, a grove returns to life

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image Mike Houtaling of Dooley Groves with some freshly harvested Honeybell oranges. After losing the grove to the mere threat of citrus canker, Houghtaling brought it back, with the first harvest going on now. Photo Mitch Traphagen

It would not be possible to get fruit more fresh than at Dooley Groves. Photo gallery below article.

Outside of a metropolis of four million people lies a field of dreams. For generations there was an orange grove just outside of Ruskin that produced fruit and provided a living for families that extended well beyond the owners. The Houghtaling family, through Dooley Groves, has long sold their produce locally, but they also bought locally. The money they spent on their groves stayed right here.

The grove never had much in the way of citrus canker but neighboring trees did have it and eight years ago there was only one prescription for that — and that meant that Dooley Groves, a family farm, would be burned to ashes. In all, 22,000 healthy citrus trees were burned and bulldozed, leaving behind nothing but dry, sandy soil. A long family legacy seemed to go up in smoke, due not to disease but to the mere threat of it. There was nothing that owner Mike Houghtaling could do.

Or so it seemed.

Mike and Diane Houghtaling are not the types to wring their hands and give up in despair. Under his watch, the grove produced premium fruit, not the kind that was mashed into juice containers but the kind that made up beautiful baskets for the enjoyment of locals and were wrapped as gifts for those not blessed to live here. 

Three years ago, Mike and Diane, their family and employees, replanted 8,100 orange trees by hand. They also installed a state-of-the-art irrigation system. Most of the trees they planted were to produce Honeybell tangelos, one of the most rare, most sought- after, and difficult to produce varieties of citrus in Florida.

And today, just over three years later, those trees are bearing fruit. Delicious fruit.

Houghtaling has a long association with the land. His great-grandfather was working it in South Hillsborough in the late 1800s; his father, Julius “Dooley” Houghtaling, expanded the family farm but went on to become a nuclear physicist. The land is in Mike’s blood, and it turns out there was a silver lining to watching his family legacy involuntarily burn. He was able to start over, working the land again in a way that brings him even closer to it.

“This feels good,” he said looking out at a grove of 8,000 trees. “We had 300 acres at one time and we had six stores. I’m much happier now. If something breaks, I just have to walk down the road instead of driving to a grove in Manatee County.”

He now farms about 25 or so acres.

Three years after planting them, the trees are five to seven feet tall, ideal for walking through the grove and picking your own, harvesting the fruits yourself, which is an opportunity that Dooley Groves will soon offer. He had no way of knowing, when planting all of those little stalks of trees, what would really result from all of that hard work. Farming is indeed science but Mother Nature still plays a role in everything.

“I don’t go to casinos,” Mike said. “But the truth is that farmers are the biggest gamblers in the world.”

There is far more than a roll of the dice in being a citrus farmer. There is knowledge passed down the generations, there is an enormous amount of science, some of which is emerging daily. On display in their store, just off Stephens Road outside of Ruskin, are farm implements that have been passed down through the generations of his family and neighbors. Mike Houghtaling’s knowledge and love of the land is something that grows over time and with passion, much like the groves he now tends.

He talks to scientists and to other growers; he attends meetings and learns more.  “This is the way it is going to be done in the future,” Mike said while looking at his brand-new grove.

His standards are extremely high, something that has also been passed down through the generations of his family, and despite that his trees are producing fruit, Mike sees some that aren’t producing the fruit he wants. They will be cut down and replaced, doubtless difficult for the fledgling grove.

Honeybell tangelos tend to ripen only in January; there is just one crop per year. And now even the weather is cooperating. 

“The recent cold weather is good for the oranges,” Mike said. “They are ripe and ready to go but there hasn’t been enough cold weather. “

Until now, at least.

Citrus canker still exists and is nearly everywhere, including in neighboring groves. Although how it is dealt with is no longer a policy of slash and burn, Mike planted eucalyptus trees around his groves to act as barriers to the disease. They also help to shelter the trees during the rare hard freezes.

“This is real,” he said.  “It doesn’t get any more real than this. It is local, it is fresh. This is everything to us.”

“We decided that giving up was not an option for us,” Diane added.

Their store is bright, sunny and filled with the fruits of their labor. In addition to their varieties of produce (which includes beautiful, enormous ponderosa lemons, which Diane refers to, accurately, as “Dr. Seuss lemons”), there is a wide array of other locally produced products, from syrup to candies. But it is the Honeybell oranges, the lemons and the grapefruit that are the stars of the show. They all come from home.

“This year our aim is to sell most everything through our store,” Mike said. “Next year we hope our production will double or triple.”

Three years ago, the article that ran in The Observer News, The SCC Observer and The Current drew to a close with a quote from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, one of Florida’s most famous writers and a woman who lovingly tended her own orange grove. And now with beautiful groves bearing fruit rising from the ashes, another Rawlings quote offers an invitation:

It is necessary to leave the impersonal highway, to step inside the rusty gate and close it behind. ...One is now inside the grove, out of one world and in the mysterious heart of another. Enchantment lies in different things for each of us.

Drive U.S. Hwy 41 south of Ruskin to Universal Drive, take a right on Stephens Road and you’ll come to Dooley Groves. And there, you can enter another world, an enchanting place where it is beautifully quiet, a place where faith and perseverance won out over adversity. A place where a couple, generations into working the land, have devoted everything to producing something wonderful in Florida, in America. They could have sold their land, there could be houses planned for what has long been a family legacy but instead they worked the dry, sandy soil into lush, wonderful groves.

“I might be very stupid,” Mike said with a laugh, and then received a kiss from Diane. That is not a term anyone who meets him would ever consider.

He then looked out at the grove  and spoke again.

“We don’t really have any problems. We have everything we need.”

Dooley Groves is located at 1651 Stephens Rd. in Old Sun City. For information, call 813-645-3256 or visit their website at www.dooleygroves.com.

For more photos and stories behind the photos, follow Mitch Traphagen on Facebook at www.facebook.com/mitchtraphagen

Dooley Groves rises from the ashes - Images by Mitch Traphagen

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