VENUS — What was once a tangerine grove south of Lake Placid was transformed five years ago into 20 acres of prestigious lychee fruit and macadamia nut trees. Today, more than 50,000 pounds of lychees a year are being shipped to markets in Miami and New York out of this operation. The 100 macadamia trees are producing a nice crop as well.
In case you’re wondering what a lychee is, you might want to pick some up at the three official locations in Highlands County: Donna’s Produce at State Road 66 and U.S. 98, Paul’s Produce near Rodney’s Marathon in Lake Placid, or the Chevron station at U.S. 27 and State Road 70. You’ll be in for a sweet treat.
But maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. A description might be in order. Lychees are a red, bumpy-shelled fruit that grows on large bushes in a tropical setting. They are roughly the size of a plum. Once the outer soft shell is broken, a white meaty fruit appears. Deep inside you’ll find a seed that is easily removed. Then, the fruit, with its own special taste, can be eaten or used in a large variety of recipes.
Considered a delicacy in Asian countries, lychees are now becoming popular in the U.S., too.
They come in three sizes: Sweetheart (which is almost seedless), Brewster (with a larger seed), and Emperor (with a very large seed inside). Each has a different degree of sweetness. The University of Florida Extension is researching them as an alternative fruit.
Producing lychees for the market is hard work. It takes at least three years from planting before the trees start producing fruit. The bushes have to be irrigated and fertilized. Plus, a freeze or a hurricane can be deadly. In fact, when Hurricane Irma hit almost three years ago, almost 900 of the 1,600 trees on this family-owned grove were destroyed and had to be replanted. Venus is located at the northern fringe of where lychees are ideally grown.
So, how did this oasis get started? Well, Bill and Lynn Masters, along with partners Morris and Andrea Corbitt, bought the grove five years ago and planted the trees. Bill had retired from the scrap metal business in Broward County, while his wife, Lynn, had been an RN and a school teacher. Now, they live in Lake Placid. They do the year round caring for their Lake Placid Fruit and Nut Grove. Meanwhile, the Corbitts still live in Fort Lauderdale and help out whenever they can, especially during harvesting.
In addition to humans caring for the crop, it takes 60 pallets of bees to pollinate the flowers. The 240 boxes of bees are spread out throughout the grove and the bees do their job. Naturally, no one ventures around the trees while this is going on. Somehow the beekeepers manage to corral them back into their boxes when they’re done.
The harvesting of lychees is very timely. Once the fruit is removed from the tree, the clock starts. The fruit has to be immediately cooled inside a barn kept at 70 degrees. Workers remove most of the leaves and pack the product in shipping boxes. Then the boxes are stored at 40 degrees until the truck is about to arrive to transport them to Miami.
A pallet at a time is loaded into the refrigerated truck, and off they go. The fruit has to be transferred to waiting semis, and is shipped to the Asian markets in New York. From picking until consumption, the lychees only have a five-day shelf life. Much of the fruit is preserved by canning for future use, but the majority of it is eaten raw.
Bill Masters explained that the picking season begins in mid-May and lasts until mid-July, depending on the weather. Since the fruit is so vulnerable, they are careful not to pick more than they can immediately ship. Right now, the Masters and the Corbitt family are doing the picking and packing. But they also enlist the help of migrant workers at times.
Masters also added that the lychee price that they receive varies between $3 to $5 a pound. It is then sold for much higher to consumers. Andrea Corbitt is experimenting with making jams and wine out of the delicious fruit for even more income.
Moving on to the other crop that this grove produces, let’s talk about the macadamia nuts. These trees are much easier to care for. Bill Masters jokes that nothing messes with them except the squirrels. They don’t require any spraying. Macadamia nuts grow differently than most tree-grown items. The clusters grow close to the trunk of the tree rather than on the outer branches.
Like the lychees, the macadamia nut is a three-part process. First, there is an outer husk. As it ripens, this husk releases a shell that drops to the ground. The shells that resemble a large acorn are gathered up and are ready for shipping. The treasured macadamia nut stays in tact inside the shell. Later, a specialized machine is used to crack the hard shell to reveal the nut itself. The shell produces an oil that is used for making cosmetics and is also great for cooking, especially for fish.
Bill Masters says that eventually, when the trees in the grove are about 10 years old, they plan to purchase one of these machines to process the shell oil themselves. He commented that grocery stores sell the oil at about $6 for 4 ounces. But, for right now, they work from morning until dark enjoying their ‘retirement’ project.
So, the next time you eat a lychee or savor a macadamia nut cookie, think of the Williams and Corbitt families. If you would like more information about Lake Placid Fruit and Nut Grove, contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.