Citrus grove adapts to changing times

In 1948, Perry and Annie Lee Hayes started growing citrus trees on a 40-acre tract of land near Venice, Fla. The land already contained some citrus trees, which provided a source of income for their start-up phase. Planting additional oranges, grapefruit and other citrus trees, they waited seven years for the new trees to produce enough production fruit. Hayes previously worked for Stone Groves, so he already knew the citrus business.  

In the mid-1960s after Hayes and his wife retired, son-in-law Gene Henderson took over the operation and changed the name to Nokomis Groves, using the name of the nearby town. After Henderson died in 1979, his wife and five daughters continued to operate the company.

During peak season, the company employs about 35 workers. Sales volume ranges from $5 million to $10 million, and from 8,000 to 10,000 boxes of shipped fruit. The amount harvested and sold depends on several factors, such as late frost, drought and insects. With the freeze line near Fort Myers and Nokomis a few miles north, extreme cold is usually not a problem, but it can happen.

Daughter Joanna Pal, in charge of sales, says the business has changed with the times, but they’re still committed to quality products and customer service—a trademark since the family first started selling fruit in the mid-1940s. For example, they follow the business practices of Gene Henderson as stated in the Nashville Tennessean in a February 28, 1963, article, “Douse Your Lantern Diogenes, Say We,” written by John H. Nye. Readers will recall the apocryphal story that Diogenes (412 B.C.—323 B.C.), a Greek philosopher, roamed ancient Greece in search of an honest man.

The incredulous winter visitor came out shaking his head.

Explaining the state of his puzzlement, John H. Nye, retired publisher and editor from Nashville, Tenn., had this to say:

“Here I am trying to have some oranges sent back home and this fellow inside advises against it, saying the quality of his fruit is not the best because of the December freeze.

“Before I came down here they were telling me I’d better watch out because a tourist is liable to get skinned in Florida. They—and Diogenes—must not have been to Venice.”

This incident involving a customer eager to buy and a seller reluctant to sell occurred at Hayes Grove.

“It is not a question of honesty, but a question of good business when we tell a customer this year’s crop is below standard,” said Gene Henderson, Hayes Grove manager.

“Some of our fruit is in perfect condition, some of it isn’t. Sure, we could go ahead and sell it for shipping, but that isn’t the way we do business. If we can’t guarantee our product we tell our customers so.

“Next season will be a different story. Our trees came through the freeze in pretty good shape. Next season we anticipate a normal crop.

“We lost about 50 percent of our crop to the freeze, the first since the 1890s to hit so hard this far south. Some of the fruit we salvaged and sent to the juice plants.”

With a reputation such as this, it’s no wonder that the Nokomis Grove is one of Florida’s top producers of fine quality citrus fruit.

“Being owned and operated by the same family since 1948, we’ve learned how to handle difficult situations when they arise,” says Pal. “We have each other—there is no one else.”

Jars of jelly are sold as byproducts from the citrus business.
 
Citrus fruit moves through a conveyor belt and is sorted by size.
 
Large containers separate citrus as to grades and varieties.
 
Bins of colorful fruit fill the shopping area of the Nokomis Groves Store.

Marketing tips that equal success

“With the new government food guidelines that encourage people to add more vegetables and fruits to their daily diet, customers are more concerned about good nutrition,” says Pal. “I think this is one reason for our continued success.”

As in past years, Nokomis Groves continues to rely on “word-of-mouth” advertising. “Much of our local business comes from people recommending that visitors stop by our store,” says Pal. “Our walk-in traffic grows each year.” Remember when citrus groves across Florida’s highways posted billboards advertising 5-cent cups of orange juice? Well, it’s still available at Nokomis Groves. Put a nickel in the coin machine, place a paper cup under the spout and enjoy a cold serving of fresh- gs never change.” Those who drink a sample end up buying bags of citrus to carry home.

Indoors, customers can watch fruit being washed, sorted and packaged. Conveyor belts bring fruit into the building. This process provides an educational approach to how citrus comes from the nearby fields, arrives at the store and is prepared for immediate purchase or shipping.

Another successful marketing technique is the catalog room. Customers can browse through seasonal brochures and have produce shipped to family and friends.

Bins of fruit in-season fill over half of the store. Bright yellow grapefruit, zesty lemons, juicy oranges and honey-flavored tangerines provide a citrus aroma from the moment customers enter. Along one side of the shop, jars of jellies, preserves and fruit honey line the wall.

Nokomis Groves understands the value of packaging. Instead of shipping fruit in plain cardboard boxes, customers can select colorful baskets, counter packs of juice, wicker baskets of fruit with party supplies and beachcomber canvas totes. As a souvenir of the Sunshine State, the tote contains sweet oranges, lemonade mix, chocolate shells, a beach ball, a flower lei and their own canvas tote. Packages of candies, nuts and shredded paper add to the attractive gift baskets. Seasonal decorations accompany the Thanksgiving and Christmas orders, one of the busiest times of the year for sales.

Another way of advertising comes from the homemade orange ice cream made daily at Nokomis Groves. Using an old family recipe, tree-ripened oranges produce a one-of-a-kind dessert.

Technology has changed the way that Nokomis Groves advertises. Internet sales account for a large percent of the company’s annual dollars and purchases increase annually. Customers can experience the same look and feel of the catalog virtually and at anytime.

Although changes have taken place in advertising, Nokomis Groves continues to operate by the same honest methods that have made them growers of fine-quality citrus fruit for generations.

Carolyn Ross Tomlin is a freelance contributor based in Jackson, Tenn.

Protect Your Business

Nokomis Groves recommends that anyone shipping fresh citrus have a similar  statement printed on a company brochure, catalog or Internet site:

“Nokomis guarantees fruit to arrive in good condition to the address given on your order. However, they cannot be responsible for incorrect names, addresses, zip codes or if recipient is out of town or has moved at time of delivery.”

Another statement to include: “We reserve the right to substitute varieties of equal or greater value when necessary. If you wish no substitutions, please specify.” This may happen when one variety is going out and another coming in.

Fruit cannot be shipped to Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Louisiana and Texas. Sometimes customers who visit the store do not understand this law. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has restrictions as to the canker disease, but the virus has never been found at Nokomis Groves.  

For more information, visit www.nokomisgroves.com or call 800-426-5274.