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Golden Gem Growers - Umatilla, FL
Sign sponsored by Greater Umatilla Historical Society
Dalton Yancey, Elliot Seabrook, Chuck Allison, Winkie Kennedy, Cliff Whitaker

In appreciation of all citrus growers and industry employees

From Oral History, Jack Nelson

In 1947 John Nelson, Bob Flippo and John Schriefer organized Grand Island Fruit Company.  They had a packing house in Altoona.  The company was changed to a cooperative, Grand Island Citrus Cooperative and the name changed to Golden Gem Growers in 1951.

The coop was sending juice fruit to B&W Canning plant in Groveland.  Soon Golden Gem was producing so much fruit they were able to build a processing facility in 1958.  In 1959 they built a fresh fruit packing house.  Both facilities were located on 824 acres just south of Umatilla on Hwy 19.  The coop grew and were handling 75,000 to 80,000 boxes a day during the season with 13 to 15 million boxes a year being handled by the coop.

The grove care division was the largest cooperative venture in Florida as they managed more than 16,000 acres at one time.  The coop was handling fruit from 24,000 acres.  It was a very large operation than employed more than 1000 individuals to grow, harvest, process, pack and market the crop.  They were the second largest employer in Lake County, the Lake County School System was number 1.  It is interesting that the huge citrus coop provided a large portion of the school system budget, yet not one citrus tree attended classes (ok, so the children of the 1000 employees did attend school).

Most of the product from the juice plant was sold to private labels like Kroger, Grand Union, A&P, etc.  Very small amount of the frozen concentrated orange juice (FCOJ) was sold under the Golden Gem label.  The cooperative constructed a large tank farm to store 250,000 gallons of FCOJ.  In ??? Golden Gem built a not from concentrate (NFC) plant.  The NFC product was rapidly taking over the consumer market, the families did not have time to thaw the FCOJ and add water, they wanted it ready to drink from the carton!!  Once the NFC facility was constructed a 10-million-gallon tank farm was constructed to handle the large volume of juice.

The freezes of 1983 and 1985 kicked Golden Gem growers hard!  Groves in North Florida suffered tremendous damage, 90% of the trees in Lake County were killed!!  Golden Gem made a valiant effort to survive.  The Grower Division secured groves in south Florida for the coop.  Golden Gem and some grower members actually purchased land and planted 1000 acres in the Ft. Pierce area.  The coop was buying fresh fruit as well and hauling it from South Florida to run the packinghouse.  It was a valiant effort, but the coop suffered a fatal blow when the price of juice dropped to the point that they were forced to close and declared bankrupt!  They had managed to hang in there after the freezes, but could not deal with the market decline.
Florida’s Natural (a grower cooperative in Lake Wales) eventually purchased the entire complex.  They use the storage facility and also package product.  No fruit is actually ‘squeezed’ at the site.  It is still a citrus operation.

Golden Gem was an innovator and leader in many ways.  They constructed a housing facility for harvesters during the period when the federal government was encouraging use of domestic workers.  Harvesters were recruited, primarily from SE states and stayed at the housing facility.  They charge was just enough pay all costs.  Meals and a room were available and of course transportation to the groves.  Golden Gem partnered with ?? to build a facility that used resources of the coop to generate electricity!  This partnership reduced Golden Gems power costs.

Golden Gem Growers had a fantastic group of employees from those that grew the crop, those that harvested it, those that processed and packed and all involved in the marketing and management.  It was a huge family that worked hard for all the grower members.  Over the years these growers remained loyal and supported their coop.  Unfortunately, the weather and market brought about the demise of this citrus giant.  The doors were closed for the final time in 2002.

Other Golden Gem Growers Labels
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Most packers had several labels they could use.  The primary color of the label indicated the grade of the citrus in the box.  Blue was US #1, the best quality from the packer. Red was US #2, a step down and occasionally another color was used for fruit not making US#1 or US #2.  It should be noted that almost all the Florida fruit that did not meet US#1 standard was due to external appearance.  The internal quality was the same!  Florida conditions, namely a hot wet summer, produced a large number of pests that would damage the surface of the fruit.  The primary one is very small mite, specifically the rust mite.  This pest can produce a dark brown or russet blemish on the surface of the fruit.  Several fungal organisms also can cause damage to the peal. Melanose produces small raised spots producing a fine “sand paper’ feel.  When heavy these lesions can cover a large portion of the fruit surface as well. Windy conditions during spring when the fruit are small cause surface damage as well (this is known as wind scar – the small fruit would rub against leaves producing a superficial blemish to the peel).
Florida growers have to deal with these superficial blemishes because the consumer is looking for a perfect looking piece of fruit.  Sugar content cannot be determined by looking the fruit, so don’t be quick to decide that if an orange is not perfect on the outside that does not mean it will not taste good.  Florida citrus might not be the prettiest in the bin, but they cannot be beat for taste.

The Packing House

Golden Gem packing house was located in Umatilla.

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To learn more about Lake County citrus click here

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