With a light breeze fluttering the leaves on the citrus trees and the faint hum of a few bees looking for blossoms to pollinate, two dozen visitors spent an hour learning more than they expected at Al’s Family Farms.
Children raced oranges down a water track and mastered a pavement maze while they waited for the tour to begin.
“I can tell what kind of tour this is going to be,” said tour guide Shari Bentley, chuckling as the crowd shouted quiz answers in rapid fire succession. “I’m in trouble!”
For at least the last decade, Bentley has been leading tours at the farm, opening with a brief history of the 40-year-old citrus operation, the family behind it, and the wonder that is Indian River citrus.
“Each piece is hand-picked,” Bentley said – or, in the case of Honeybells, hand-clipped to preserve the bell shape at the top of the fruit.
Jeff Schorner oversees the operation, having taken the reins when his father, Al, passed away in 1987.
“I learned an awful lot from him,” Schorner said of his dad, who had moved the family from Pennsylvania to Florida in 1974. Jeff came home from college in 1983 and went to work with his dad at the citrus packing house.
His dad wanted to throw in the towel – “Let’s stop,” Schorner recalled his father saying. He had become dejected, not turning a profit. Jeff Schorner brought in-house all the things his dad had sent out for contract work. In a couple short years, the packing house broke even and then became profitable. Then Al passed, in 1987.
In those very short years, Jeff Schorner fell in love with citrus – and with the vision his dad had shared.
“It gets in your blood,” he said. “When you handle the best crops in the world …”
No matter how busy he is working in the plant or out in the orchard, he does his best to make time for those who tour the farm, answering visitors’ questions.
On a recent tour, they peppered him with questions ranging from crop insurance to organic bug control.
“We’ve talked to the bugs,” Schorner said, drawing a chuckle from his audience. The bugs don’t seem to care for the organic methods of pest control.
Inside the packing house, Schorner said they’re working to come up with solutions to pest problems. “I don’t think we can spray our way out of problems,” he said.
To that end, his youngest son, Matt, who is 19, is a citrus major. He is learning the latest research and bringing that information home.
Schorner’s oldest son, 23-year-old Brad, is a newlywed currently in the U.S. Marines Reserve and serves as a firefighter in St. Lucie County.
Schorner’s wife, Sharon, has perhaps the most important jobs on the farm, according to tour guide Michelle Laettner. She makes all the fudge from scratch – and handles the paychecks.
Schorner agreed with that assessment.
While citrus seasons vary from year to year, Schorner said this year – up till hurricane season – had been doing well. He said production was up 10 percent.
But, Hurricane Irma changed that – ruining 35 percent of the crop.
Crop insurance helps, Schorner said, addressing one of the tour-goer’s questions. But it isn’t enough to make them whole.
“It’s really hard,” Schorner said of being a farmer. “But we’re really resilient. We’re tough. We don’t quit.”
Tours of Al’s Family Farms, 2001 N. Kings Hwy. at Angle Road, Fort Pierce, are held daily at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday through Friday, now through April 6. Reservations are recommended and can be made by calling 1-800-544-3366. Tours are $8. For more information, call 772-460-0556.