110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
Crop is ready for another holiday season
By Pat Andrews
posted Dec 3, 2012 - 7:55:43am
In rural corners of West Volusia, the traveler finds small farmers and citrus growers hanging onto a way of life others have forsaken. One of them is Markalee Blackwelder, who operates a citrus grove at 731 Blackwelder Road, off Lake Winona Road in DeLeon Springs.
The road already bore the family name when Markalee arrived. His great-grandfather, Tobias, settled in the area in the late 1800s; then grandparents Wilson and Mary Blackwelder began farming there around 100 years ago.
Markalee Blackwelder bought 15-20 acres of land on Blackwelder Road in 1959 or ’60.
“It was an open field with an old homestead,” he said.
He started out with a hay operation, then added a fernery.
In 1980, Markalee planted orange and peach trees. The peaches didn’t thrive, but the oranges did, and Markalee began a “u-pick” operation, with a friendly style, which he still has. Webbed bags for citrus hang on the gateposts, so visitors can grab them and start picking.
Back then, the you-pick method wasn’t as popular as it is today in West Volusia.
“I was the first one,” Markalee said.
He also grows juice oranges that are mostly sold to processors.
Markalee is perpetuating the family tradition. His grandson, Travis Gamble, has taken over part of Markalee’s property, including part of the citrus and the fernery.
Travis and his wife, Shari, along with their son, Hayden, live in the house where Markalee and his wife, Norma, raised their five children.
They are Larry, who has some citrus; Raye, who is Travis’ mom; twins David and Dwane; and Jimmy. After the children were grown, Markalee and Norma built a smaller place on a nearby lake.
Travis is a teacher at Volusia Pines Elementary School in Lake Helen, as well as a grower.
“I believe in diversity,” he said with a grin.
It’s too early to tell whether Hayden, now 5 years old, will continue the citrus-farming tradition. Hayden loves riding on the tractor, his father said.
“You know, farming is a very hard life. It’s a good life, but a hard life,” Markalee said.
Travis agreed, saying, “This spot is so cold.”
When the devastating freezes of the 1980s came, Markalee had oranges scattered around the acreage. A hard freeze, when temperatures drop to 28 degrees or below for more than four hours, can kill the trees.
A couple of years ago, the temperature dipped to 17 degrees one night, Travis said.
“I replanted this grove about three times,” Markalee said of the trees near his barn.
Along with mature trees, seedlings and young trees are scattered through the grove, replacing trees that died from cold or disease.
Fern is even more cold-sensitive, Travis noted. While the past winter was fairly mild, during the winter of 2010-11, he and Markalee ran water on both the ferns and citrus on 60 occasions, to give them a protective ice coating.
The water goes onto the fern when the temperature falls to 32 degrees or below, and onto the trees when the temperature drops to 27 or 28 degrees. The Blackwelders had already run water on the fern several times by mid-November this year.
Travis cut his teeth in the fern business; his parents own T&T Ferneries in Seville.
“They’re going more into the hay business now,” he said.
There’s always a challenge with citrus — whether it’s the cold, a fungus, citrus-greening disease or something new on the horizon, the two men said.
But, the Blackwelders are here to stay, growing citrus. Their trees were loaded with ripening, full-bodied fruit when The Beacon visited in mid-November.
“The navels are ready,” Markalee said.
Almost ready were the Hamlins and grapefruit.
For more information, call Markalee at 386-985-4747.
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