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Agri Leader

An unexpected view of Florida's ag history


Published:   |   Updated: August 28, 2013 at 10:31 AM

During our family summer vacation - what I like to refer to as our Southeast World Tour - I drove about 2,000 miles, from southwest Florida up to my aunt's farm in southern Virginia, then over to the Outer Banks, and then back home to Florida. For our final weekend before arriving home, my son and I decided to stay for a weekend in St. Augustine.

As you probably know, St. Augustine on the state's East coast is where Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon is said to have landed in 1513, leading to the discovery of La Florida - named after the flowering Easter season that was occurring in his native Spain. This year, Florida is heralding its 500th year with its Viva Florida celebration.

A common way to see and learn about St. Augustine's historical sites is with a trolley tour. So, on an early, sweltering Sunday morning, my coffee cup in hand, we were the first to board.

As our driver impressed passengers with the sights (well, I was impressed, but maybe others behind us were really asleep), it surprised me to find out that St. Augustine's history comes with a side lesson on Florida's agricultural history.

For example, our driver told us that oranges are not native to Florida - that they were brought here and grown by Ponce de Leon.

We also learned that the first production of wine in the United States was not in California or even Virginia, but instead took place not far from St. Augustine.

I also learned during our time in St. Augustine that there's an agricultural museum nearby to help visitors better understand the state's ag history.

Once I returned home, I decided to explore the facts a bit more.

Getting the orange facts right

OK - so the idea of Ponce de Leon happily planting oranges in St. Augustine isn't exactly true, said Charles Tingley, senior research librarian for the St. Augustine Historical Society. There are actually no accounts of oranges in the St. Augustine area until 1565, a few decades after de Leon is said to have landed. It's likely that the orange seeds were brought here by other Spanish explorers who came to the area, Tingley explained.

Of course, those seeds started the growth of Florida's behemoth citrus industry.

I thought it was funny that the trolley tour we took conjured an image of de Leon himself introducing citrus to our state. Heck, as I did research for this story, I even read the same information on the Internet - and if it's on the Internet, it must be true, right?

"The trolley companies have a script that they work from. Once it gets in the hands of the drivers, all bets are off," said Tingley.

Cheers for the first Florida wine

I then asked Tingley about the state's wine-related history. "The first winery in the U.S. was not far from St. Augustine, right?" I asked.

Wrong again. But that was not the trolley tour driver's fault, just my wording. "The first production of wine was by the French at the Fort Caroline settlement in 1564," said Tingley. That was actually near Jacksonville - relatively close to St. Augustine. The French used local grapes like Scuppernong and muscadine to make the wine. Muscadine grapes are still a major part of the wine business in Florida today. In fact, San Sebastian Winery in St. Augustine produces a large number of muscadine grape wines and offers tours that share historical facts about winemaking and St. Augustine.

Even more ag history tied to St. Augustine

As it turns out, the Spanish explorers who arrived in St. Augustine went on to bring many other commodities associated with the Sunshine State today, such as cracker cattle (a kind of cattle well-adapted to Florida's heat), equine, other fruit and vegetables, and some European plants.

If you decide to visit St. Augustine and want to learn even more ag history, make your way down to nearby Palm Coast, home to the Florida Agricultural Museum. There, you can find a 460-acre living history "museum" that's typical of an 1880s farmstead, said Mary Herron, the museum's director of development. The farm has Florida cracker cattle, pigs, chickens, row crops, seasonal gardens, a general store modeled after one circa 1897, buildings from a former citrus complex, a former dairy barn, and lots more. The farm attracts 16,000 to 17,000 visitors a year, said Herron. I plan to make a stop during our next drive out to that area.

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