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October 19, 2005:

Orange crush
Charles T. Brumback ’50 retires to the citrus industry

Charles T. Brumback ’5

Above, left, Charles T. Brumback ’50 and his wife, Mary, at their grove in Arcadia, Fla. Below, Charles T. Brumback III, Brumback’s grandson, sitting on a dead alligator, and a gator trapper, who collects alligators that breed in the grove. (Courtesy Charles Brumback ’50)

Charles T. Brumback ’5

Next time you down a swig of Tropicana Pure Premium not-from-concentrate orange juice, consider that Charles T. Brumback ’50’s fruit may be in your glass. Brumback supplies the citrus giant with Valencias from his Arcadia, Fla., grove. “Tropicana is concerned with the ‘Brix’ — the sugar content of the fruit,” says Brumback, who has perfected the growing of sweet, juicy oranges over years of harvesting fruit.

Brumback’s venture into citrus is a labor of love. His romance with the citrus industry began during his days as an economics major at Princeton. The process of concentrating orange juice recently had been invented to provide troops with a source of vitamin C during World War II — and the process fascinated him. Although he eventually went into the newspaper business, becoming the long-time controller at the Orlando Sentinel, he grew oranges on the side. In 1957, he bought his first citrus grove with his siblings and helped run it for 25 years, until he moved to Chicago in 1981 to become president and CEO of the Chicago Tribune.

“Citrus is a nice business if you enjoy being outside, watching things grow,” Brumback says. That is the way he decided to spend his retirement, purchasing a 1,500-acre grove in Arcadia in 2000 with one of his sons, then trading in his Chicago apartment for a home in Sarasota, Fla., close to the crops he loves to tend.

Not that harvesting fruit has been easy. The industry is fraught with challenges, Brumback says, including competition from orange growers in Brazil and natural challenges, like the weather. The 2004 hurricanes cut his grapefruit crop in half when winds stripped the trees of the heavy, immature fruit. Citrus growing “is not for the fainthearted,” says Brumback.

Then there are the “side businesses” Brumback didn’t expect. Alligators breed around the grove’s system of canals, as do wild hogs, which can grow to more than 400 pounds. The pickers he hires are understandably afraid of the interlopers, so several times a year Brumback hires a professional gator trapper to round them up, 10 to 20 in a catch. The trapper sells the alligator meat to Walt Disney World for “gator bites,” fried nuggets consumed by resort visitors. The hogs eventually end up in Texas, where they are sold to the U.S. government as food for Third World countries.

Yes, there’s more to growing citrus than harvesting fruit. But when Brumback picks up an orange, examines it, slices out a wedge, and savors its sweetness, he knows it’s all worth it.

By Bob Massey

Bob Massey is a freelance business writer and journalist in southwest Florida.