Florida orange growers feel the pressures of change. The Davis family plans to stay

``THERE aren't very many orange growers left in Orange County.'' You hear that from a lot of people around here. The propagation of citrus -- for nearly a century the traditional way of making a living in this part of central Florida -- is retreating before a tide of housing developments, golf resorts, and the endless restaurants and hotels that feed off Disney World and other nearby tourist magnets.

But not every grower is seizing the chance to sell off his increasingly valuable acreage. Many, like Richard Davis of Ocoee, a town of 7,800 a few miles from Orlando, are inclined to stick with this way of life. In his case, orange growing goes back three generations. Mr. Davis and his wife, Jean, are now raising a fourth generation -- Rick, 7, and Steven, 3.

``They're just like me,'' he says, settling into a chair in his small field office. ``By the time they're three or four they know what a tractor is, and they want to ride on it.'' Agricultural know-how just sort of seeps in when you grow up with the rhythm of irrigating, spraying, picking, and pruning. ``Familiarization by association,'' Davis calls it.

Are his sons likely to stay with the family livelihood, given the pressures of change felt by orange growers in this area? ``I'd like 'em to,'' he says with a faint smile.

Davis grows oranges on land first planted by his grandfather. He and his father had 3,000 to 4,000 acres in production before the devastating freezes of the last couple of years. ``Now you're probably looking at 800 acres,'' he says. It's gently rolling country, with sandy soil that's very well-drained for Florida. Ideal for citrus.

Ideal, that is, except when nature takes unexpected turns. Davis, a hefty, quiet man with a touch of wryness in his speech, knows all about that. His real concerns in the last few years haven't been the encroachments of developers, but damaging freezes and an outbreak of citrus canker, a disease that can ruin orange trees.

This morning he and his father, W. R. (Blossom) Davis, have been out in the fenced area that encloses shed after shed of tractors, sprayers, and a jumble of other mechanical odds and ends, plus a plastic-shrouded greenhouse. Such greenhouses are a focus of concern for Davis and other growers. Inside, long trays of orange seedlings represent the immediate future of the local citrus industry.

Young plants like these will eventually rejuvenate thousands of acres that now are ghostly wastelands, populated by endless ranks of spindly gray, dried-up trees -- victims of the freezes. But it's among those same ao seedlings, particularly in some large commercial nurseries, that the canker problem has arisen. ``It's only been found in succulent conditions, in nurseries,'' notes Mr. Davis Sr. Even more ironic, his son points out, the disease seems to be limited to a root stock that was developed specifically to resist cold temperatures.

The Davises recently had to burn a crop of young trees because the nursery they bought them from was found to have the canker problem. The federal government used to have an indemnity program that paid growers for such losses, says Richard Davis, but ``they backed out of that.''

Once a farmer has replanted, it takes about five years for the tree to mature and seven to eight years before the grove will turn a profit, they point out.

The succession of damaging freezes -- the last one in January of '85 -- makes these perhaps the hardest times for orange growers here since the late 1800s. A series of freezes in the 1890s nearly wiped out what was then a fledgling citrus industry. Davis rubs his chin a moment, then comments that such disastrous freezes seem to be ``a 100-year occurrence.''

Vicissitudes of nature aside, Davis sees no real exodus among families that have been close to the land for generations. ``The really committed ones stay,'' he says.True, some have sold out, but they've often been absentee owners, he adds. Still, according to John Ficquette, a grower who's on the board of directors of the local farm bureau, ``there are a lot fewer growers than there were 10 years ago.''

A continuing development boom, accompanied by higher land values and taxes, may yet overwhelm many remaining growers. New resorts and residential areas have only recently begun to lurch out from Orlando towards Ocoee, says Davis. Predictably, he has had some complaints about pesticides from newcomers unused to agricultural neighbors. ``People from up north,'' he says, ``they don't like it, because you're spraying next to their house. The wind gets it into their pools.'' He maintains, however, that the chemicals he's using are ``relatively mild.''

On top of his other concerns, right now juice oranges aren't returning the profits growers had grown accustomed to in the past. The market is ``mushy,'' says Davis. John Ficquette goes further: ``It's worse than mushy -- it's orange crush!''

``Friends say, `why don't you get in a line of work where you can make some money?' '' Davis admits. But he likes what he's doing, and observes that any line of work has its uncertainties.

What, above all else, keeps him in agriculture? Another pause for thought, then the reply one is likely to hear from farmers and ranchers across the US: ``Probably just the independence of it -- being your own boss, doing your own thing.''

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