I grew up in central Florida near the freeze line for the citrus industry. A cold winter brought out smudge pots and all-night efforts to save the crop, and as often as not the effort failed and the local fruit season was ruined. So, I was very surprise to see in downtown Elberta, Alabama, a truck vendor with a wide range of locally grown citrus fruit, including satsumas, juice oranges, naval oranges, grapefruit and Meyer lemons.
Terry and Julie Lord are lifelong panhandle residents who can grow just about anything. They live just a few blocks from the Elberta’s central square where I met them. They have a beautiful homestead where they also grow spectacular kumquats, Asian pears, figs, turnip greens, orchids, and much more. There is also have a pond for catfish and brim.
Since my childhood in central Florida, much has evidently changed in citrus growing. Genetic crosses and grafting have resulted in trees that can tolerate the few freezing nights in the north Gulf coast. Terry’s trees are lush and loaded with fruit. Many people in this region have very productive citrus trees in their yards, primarily satusmas and Meyer lemons, but Terry and Julie demonstrate that a wide range of citrus grows very well here.
The northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico has always been known for its beautiful beaches — sugar white sand, gentle waves, clean water (despite British Petroleum). The winters are colder than south Florida, but thousands of snowbirds think it is warm enough. In fact, global warming may be shifting typical Miami weather to the north. South Florida can can be horrendously warm in the summers and the beach towns are crowded and expensive.
Between Panama City, Florida, and Gulf Shores, Alabama, are 125 miles of near continuous beaches, as well as lush bays and bayous. This stretch is sometimes referred to as the Emerald Coast (although a Florida Chamber of Commerce office seems to hold the copyright on that term), because of the deep, clear green of the water. The beaches are perennially listed as among the most beautiful in the world. Perhaps most attractive, there are miles and miles of undeveloped property.
Uncrowded, inexpensive beaches and a warming climate, now combined with fresh tropical fruit, suggest that this stretch of oceanfront may be due for a development boom. Just prior to the economic collapse of 2008, two huge commercial and real estate developments were begun in Gulf Shores (at the public beach and on the intercoastal waterway), but were stopped cold by the banking and housing crisis.
The area can certainly use the economic infusion. The states of Florida and Alabama might borrow an idea from Mexico, where Cancun, Ixtapa, and now Costa Maya were developed through centralized organization and planning into major tourist magnets. Similar to those areas, the panhandle coast has great, undeveloped natural beauty. Add topnotch citrus fruit to the mix and things can happen.
Add Hospitality to the Blend
These beach towns have another major attraction, the people. There is all the politeness and gentility of the Deep South. People stop and chat in stores, waitresses call you “sweetheart,” and assume you want sweet tea with your fried mullet. Of course that gentility has a history of masking brutal racial repression, and that still is seen and heard.
However, most people seem to be ahead of the political image presented by Alabama and North Florida political leaders. People are becoming more familiar with outsiders — Hispanics, Vietnamese, and a huge variety of national backgrounds in the resorts and restaurants. With familiarity comes understanding and acceptance.
Despite its reputation, the Deep South has a deep-seated kindness that has not been accurately represented by its politicians. People want to know their neighbors. They reflexively want to help when needed.
Meeting the Lord family is an example of that kindness. Julie contributes farm produce to a battered women’s shelter. She and Terry brightened at our interest and appreciation for their lifestyle. We were invited to see their home place and we were loaded with samples. Although they are closing down the truck stand for the winter, we were invited to “come up to the house,” when we wanted more fruit.
They are pleased to share what they know as well as what they grow.