Interview of John Krohn, Ladybug Grove
By Michelle Dudley, January 2009
Location: Lake Wales, Florida. Located 1 hour south of Orlando in what John claims as “the most beautiful part of Florida”. This area is known as “The Ridge” because it rests at about 250 feet, the highest elevation on the peninsula and therefore the only part of the peninsula that was never underwater. “The Ridge” is known for its varied and well-preserved species, such as scrubjays, cardinals, wrens and hawks. As there has been little development on “The Ridge”, the citrus still far outnumber the people and the view from the farm is said to be spectacular. John attests that one can even see the Tampa thunderstorms 150 miles away. Visitors have mentioned that they sleep better there than anywhere else. “The Ridge” is also special in that it is the furthest place north that you can grow citrus. Although other parts of Florida can get a freeze in January, John’s property is never affected by more than a frost, because the breeze from the lake actually warms the freeze before it hits.
Acres cultivated: 4
Products produced on the farm: Oranges and other citrus varieties such as tangelos, Hamlin oranges, honey bells, temples, Valencia’s, and grapefruit for the CSA. Lemons, limes, star fruit, mango, avocado, peaches, plums, cherries, persimmons, lychees, papaya and vegetables are also grown at Ladybug Grove for family consumption.
Signature product: Citrus: Not only is Spiritual Food CSA John Krohn’s first customer, we are also his best customer! Just as his trees started to bear fruit, Victor and Lakshmi put in an order. If we are lucky, he may be sending mangos or more of those huge avocados in the future!
Methods of Harvesting: John Krohn tests the ripeness of the fruit by the taste of the juice, color and feel. Ripe oranges can still often be green. Although many citrus groves pick their fruit using mechanical methods, John Krohn picks by hand. Alone. This means every piece of fruit brought to you by the CSA has been picked by him. He harvests a different variety each month, as the fruit only stays on the trees 4-5 weeks before drying out. The less juicy oranges may signify drought or end of season for that variety and then those that fall onto the ground become compost.
Choosing ripe fruit is a complex process in a grove with a variety of trees like his and drier pieces of fruit sometimes sneak though. The cycle of a citrus tree is fascinating:
Each tree blooms 3 times in a season and each bloom is a week or two apart. Therefore there are 3 ripening stages per tree that the harvester must discern.
As if that weren’t enough to keep track of, after each bloom “sets” (which refers to the start of the growth of the fruit itself), at some point the tree starts pulling back on the sugars and the fruit starts drying out. This means the juiciest, sweetest fruit comes from knowing when the fruit from that bloom is at its peak, and timing harvest before it starts drying out. John says that towards the end of the season for each bloom he drops 1 to the ground for every 3 he picks. He carries a knife to test some right in the tree and if they’re showing up dry will skip that tree altogether. And if that isn’t enough, remember there are 5 varieties among 350 trees in the grove and they are not all on the same schedule!
The several varieties he has in the grove are selected to ripen at different times in order to extend the season. This makes harvesting tricky but serves Spiritual Food for the New Millennium and the CSA perfectly. Commercial growers will plant all one variety in a grove of 100 or 1000 acres, wait for peak season of the second bloom and pick everything in a few days with a hired crew of usually migrant workers. The farmer gets a small fraction of market value for his fruit.
John chooses not to use apprentices or other pickers, based partly on the risk of spreading “canker”. “Canker” occurs in the early stages of fruit’s development, especially with rainfall in warm weather. This disease effects citrus, causing blemishes on the skin, leaves and stem. Via machinery, animals or even pickers, “canker” and can be transported easily from grove to grove.
According to John, this situation began a few years ago in south Florida. If any sign of this were found on a grove, all the grove’s trees would be removed. During this time, thousands of acres of fruit trees were cut down. The situation became so out of control in the state, especially due to being spread by hurricanes, that authorities couldn’t handle the situation. Growers were then left to handle it alone. Nowadays, any citrus shipped out of the state is required to be washed at a certified facility and given inspection certification.
If anyone is interested in apprenticing at an organic farm in Florida, there are some in his area he could direct people to.
How long have you been farming? “After putting in hours on the 1 acre family garden during my youth in New York State as well as spending a number of years working varied farm jobs while I hitch-hiked across the country, I eventually went south. I found comfort with the warm weather and I became a horse-rancher in West Palm Beach, Florida. It wasn’t until 14 years ago that I decided to move to the quieter country in central Florida. It was here in Lake Wales that my neighbor, Hunter Lilly, introduced me to biodynamic agriculture. Since then, I have managed my grove with biodynamic farming practices and natural products.”
What intrigues you about Biodynamics? “The fact that it’s also spiritual, and that one’s intent has to be transferred to the plant spiritually. It can be a confirmation of one’s intent.”
What keeps you motivated in farming? “I enjoy it. It provides me with time outdoors, exercise and health. A person is happy doing what they were meant to do”.
What’s your advice to a young person interested in making farming a career? “Do a lot of research. Research, research, research.”
Has the wildlife in your area changed over the years? “It has reduced drastically. While running the horse ranch in Palm Beach I would routinely make the 2 ½ hour drive up Rt. 95 to central Florida for hay. About 40 years ago I would see hundreds of flocks of birds, with 500 – 2,000 birds per flock. Today it’s rare to actually see a flock at all, and you can even count the number of birds that you do see. Although the same varieties of birds seem to be around, they are just much fewer in number. Even the foxes today are thinner and the hawks are hungrier. Some days we see bald-headed eagles and hawks being left to feast on nothing but road-kill!”
If you could be a fruit what would you be? His answer: “I would be an avocado. Insects are easy on them. It can be the first solid food for a baby. It is perfectly balanced!”
Conclusion: Having had his grove for 14 years now, John mentions joyfully that the trees are getting taller. And as he turned 77 this year, he also notices that the ladders used to harvest the fruit seem to be getting higher. “But”, he asks, “Why is the fruit getting heavier?!” Still, he is youthful in spirit with his love for his farming, with the brightness of the sunshine he loves, as well as the occasional ride on his Harley Davidson!
Thank you, John Krohn, for your energy and sharing some of your delicious sunshine with Spiritual Food!