— Kumquat Growers, Inc. —
On a beautiful Florida day recently, people from miles around gathered in a small town for one reason: the wildly popular Dade City Kumquat Festival. The festival, held Jan. 31, is in its 19th year. Thousands of people descended on the town about 30 miles north of Lakeland in Pasco County, for samples of the fruit, pie, cookies, jams, salsas and all the fun that goes along with a typical, all-American family event.
So, what is a kumquat? It’s a citrus fruit, but not exactly a citrus fruit. It has a thin, sweet skin and a tart center. It’s eaten like a grape, skin and all. And it’s amazing in a wide variety of recipes.
FFVA producer member Greg Gude (pronounced goo-dee) serves as general manager of Kumquat Growers Inc., which supplies the fruit for the festival.
“My father is the co-owner and I’m the general manager of Kumquat Growers Inc. Dad and four other growers founded the company in 1971, but our families have been growing and shipping kumquats since 1912,” Gude said. “Two of the original founders are still active in the company.” The five growers formed the partnership and started the business because they couldn’t sell all of their kumquats at the end of the harvest season. Years ago, they harvested them with the leaves attached as seasonal products. “So you basically had November and December to sell the kumquats and after that, they pulled them and put them in a brined solution and sold to companies that made marmalades and jellies,” Gude said.
Gude enjoys talking about kumquats with visitors to the festival. In the 1870s, kumquats were imported from China to Europe by British botanist Robert Fortune, he says. Soon the fruit was imported to North America, and groves were planted in various locations including Jacksonville. “There was quite a large grove there in the 1880s,” said Gude. “A railroad ran between Jacksonville and St. Petersburg, and they were planted along the route as ornamental trees. A cousin of ours who worked in a nursery started growing them with one tree. At one time he had 10 acres of kumquats, which is a lot of kumquats. Growers would normally plant little blocks of them. People would use the kumquats with the leaves for packaging in gift fruit boxes.”
Kumquats were officially removed from the citrus industry in 1912 because they have several non-citrus characteristics, Gude said. Unlike orange and other citrus trees, the plants have multiple blooms every year. “It’ll set a bloom about once every two weeks. It also differs from standard citrus in that the peel is eaten. In addition, the tree is a dwarf, and it blooms on older growth, not on new growth,” he added.
At the peak of production, Kumquat Growers Inc. handles about 18,000 bushels of kumquats. During the last several years, however, multiple factors such as the weather and citrus greening disease have cut that to about 15,000 bushels.
There is one time of the year that kumquats are especially in demand, other than the Christmas holiday. “Because they’re from China, it’s a very special fruit for the Chinese. During the Chinese New Year, the Chinese people measure their health, wealth and good fortune by giving branches to one another. When we got rid of the leaves, that market changed. But the Chinese figure out ways to incorporate the kumquats the way they’re harvested now. We used to pick long-stemmed branches and ship them to the New York market for New Year’s – the branches could be up to 10 inches long,” he said.
The Dade City Kumquat Festival began 18 years ago as the bright idea of several women, one of whom worked with Kumquat Growers. The women were trying to come up with an idea to promote Dade City and they decided to have a festival at the end of January. “The first festival brought more than 4,000 people. We were really surprised,” Gude said.
Since then, it’s grown exponentially. More than 30,000 people visit the town, filling bags with craft items, kumquats and other goodies, and enjoying local musical entertainment, a classic car show and more.
Strangely enough, the phrase most often overheard at the festival was, “I never knew what a kumquat was before today!” Gude and his team of volunteers and staff made sure they knew all about the “cool little fruit” before they left.
“We promote all the wonderful products like kumquat preserves, jams, jellies, barbecue sauce, vinaigrette, pies, cookies — you name it,” Gude said. “And we teach people all the things you can do with kumquats. A kumquat is a cool little fruit. You can decorate with them. You can fill a vase with them, use them in dried flower arrangements. You can even chop them up and use in place of lemon. They’re also good as garnish on a plate, because a kumquat is little,” he said. “Southern Living magazine features them in the Christmas issue.”
If you missed the festival, Florida kumquats are available in most larger supermarkets as well as citrus, fruit and vegetable markets from November until April. Gift boxes are also available. Learn more here.