Pineapple farm keeping alive Treasure Coast's roots

Associated Press

You might not be familiar with the Treasure Coast's pineapple connection. There's history to it, and remnants remain today.

In the early 1900s, pineapple farms were plentiful from Rockledge to Jensen Beach, and the tropical fruit was shipped across the country by rail. There's even an annual Pineapple Festival in Jensen Beach, celebrating the area's one-time status as the "pineapple capital of the world."

But by 1920, however, after a series of crop-damaging freezes and more cost-efficient rail service to bring Cuban pineapples from Miami, many pineapple farmers had abandoned their efforts, lured away by the more-lucrative citrus industry.

Today, commercial pineapple farms are scarce anywhere in the continental United States. On the Treasure Coast, you'll find pineapple plants mostly limited to backyards.

Except in Wabasso.

The grandson of a former citrus-grove owner harvests thousands of pineapples a year on his family's farm, keeping alive the Treasure Coast's pineapple tradition.

"What was important to me was continuing the farming way of life, and maintaining profitability," said Mark Dellerman, owner of Nature Farms Inc., a 25-acre pineapple farm off U.S. 1.

His pineapples now grow on what was once Grove No. 12 on Frank Bates Groves Inc., owned by Dellerman's grandfather.

The Sweet Smell

Get close to the rows of plants just before harvest time and you're hit by the tropical scent of almost 15,000 pineapples.

Peeking out among the green plant spikes are pineapples, some golden brown, others with varying degrees of green among the golden berry clusters. Dellerman, 56, waits as long as possible to harvest his pineapples — the less green on the fruit, the sweeter the taste, he said.

Other rows have smaller pineapple plants, still in infancy, that will produce fruit next year. Each plant takes a year or two before it bears fruit, so he rotates rows to make sure he has a continual harvest.

The farm is Dellerman's full-time job, requiring constant monitoring throughout the year to ensure he has a crop to harvest in the summer. But it's not easy work. Dellerman basically is a one-man farmhand, doing most of the work himself to keep overhead low.

Moisture levels must be kept low so the plants don't wither. Damaging weeds, vines and raccoons have to be kept away.

"Raccoons can smell the sugar," he said. "They love to eat my pineapples."

Pineapples are picked by hand, but Dellerman said he loves the work. And he makes enough to support himself.

"I just enjoy kicking the dirt and watching things grow," he said.

Dellerman decided in 2002 to try pineapple farming, starting with crowns from store-bought pineapples. Steps away from the vintage-1900 green farmhouse where he once lived, he replaced the citrus crops with a field of pineapple.

Although a lifelong farmer, he learned growing pineapples was very different from the grapefruit, oranges, tangerines and tangelos that once filled his grandfather's 900-acre farm.

He found, however, the farm's proximity to the Indian River Lagoon, a low amount of rain, good drainage system and soil enriched with wood grindings and chicken manure all helped create a thriving environment for his crop.

"They love the sun. The more sun the better," he said.

Over the years, he has learned better ways of fertilizing the soil without pesticides or chemicals. The result, he said, is a sweeter pineapple than what's sold in stores.

Dellerman has developed a following among locals, who know to look for the large signs in the summer, announcing pineapple season.

He sells his pineapples Saturdays only at the farm, beginning around 10 a.m. until the daily stock is gone. Pineapple season begins in late June and continues through the middle of July. Sturgis Lumber in Vero Beach carries his fruit, and he delivers pineapples to John's Island, Orchid Island and to Osceola Bistro in Vero Beach.

Dellerman and his wife, Cindy, live in Vero Beach, and rent out the two-story farmhouses, one green and one yellow, that hide the rows of pineapple plants from the busy U.S. 1.

Pineapple Presence

Other remnants of the Treasure Coast's pineapple past still are around, though without the massive pineapple production of years ago.

In Vero Beach, caretakers of the Hallstrom House hope to resume daily tours of the former 50-acre pineapple farm home.

In 1908, Alex Hallstrom moved his successful pineapple farm to 1723 Old Dixie Highway from a smaller farm in what now is the Indrio Road area near Interstate 95, said Al Smith, director of the Hallstrom House and Farmstead.

In 1917, a severe freeze damaged the pineapple crop, Smith said. Many of the pineapple farmers from Rockledge to Jensen Beach, including Hallstrom, turned to growing citrus.

Pineapple plants take about two years to begin producing fruit, and "(the farmers) couldn't go that long without an income," Smith said. Citrus produces fruit more quickly, he said.

Treasure Coast farmers also were hurt by the influx of Cuban pineapples. Steamers carried pineapples from Havana to the Florida Keys, where refrigerated Cuban Fruit Express train cars carried them to Chicago more cheaply and quickly than the Treasure Coast farmers could ship them, according to an article written by historians Alice and Greg Luckhardt.

By the 1920s, most pineapple farms were gone, Smith said.

Dellerman said he has encountered some obstacles, but so far can maintain a profit with his farm. Last year's El Niño damaged his crop, so he is expecting fewer fruit this year.

He said he wants to expand, but is unable because of the higher overhead costs he would encounter, such as labor and materials.

"The smaller your crop is, the less is out of your pocket," he said.

Nature Farms Inc.

Address: 9150 N. U.S. 1, Sebastian

Cost: $3-$7, depending on size

Hours: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays or until the daily supply is sold out

Sturgis Lumber

Address: 4645 U.S. 1, Vero Beach (Also sells Nature Farms' pineapples)

Information: Call 772-538-6066

Hallstrom House and Farmstead

Address: 1723 Old Dixie Highway S.W., Vero Beach

Cost: $5 suggested donation

Open: 1-4 p.m. Monday through Friday and the last Saturday of the month

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