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News Release

Coming Home to Farm

Chakesha Harvey

Michael Woodley has come home, settling on his grandparent’s property and growing lemons on 20 acres in Polk County.  He returned to his hometown in Frostproof, Fla., at the request of his dying mother to take care of the land and keep it in the family. After a 30-plus year firefighting career with the Florida Forest Service that took him all over the state, Michael returned in 2011 to become a farmer. 

He comes from a long line of agricultural producers on both sides of his family. His great-great grandparents on his father’s side sailed to Ft. Myers from Ireland in the 1880s and had hundreds of acres of citrus and cattle. But that land was divided and subdivided through the years to the descendants. His family on his mother’s side go back four generations in agriculture. Now Michael is a small producer of a specialty crop: lemons. “When people think of farming, they think of big fields, combines and grain elevators, not a lemon tree,” Michael said.

He attempted to continue growing the oranges and grapefruit that he inherited on the property, but after fighting canker and greening, he wanted to try something a little different. “There is a tremendous demand for lemon oil, from cleaning products to flavorings,” he said. He chose the high producing “Bearss” lemon that is resistant to citrus greening and planted a thousand trees on 12 acres in 2018 that will produce in 2023 and bears two crops a year. “No one in this area has grown lemons commercially since a hard freeze wiped out all the lemon orchards in 1962,” Michael said.

Michael used financial assistance from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentive Program to install micro-irrigation in the orchard in 2019. “After Michael worked on the irrigation project, he was looking to take his stewardship up a notch,” said Karl Anderson, the district conservationist at the USDA Bartow service center. “He signed up for the Conservation Stewardship Program and was accepted for a four-year contract to plant pollinator habitat,” Karl said.

The program rewards landowners for their existing level of stewardship and for adopting new conservation enhancements. Michael will receive annual payments to maintain his existing conservation activities to the level of performance identified at the time of the application for his contract period, in addition to the pollinator habitat enhancement.

Michael said he is trying to use as little chemicals and pesticides as possible. Although citrus doesn’t require bees to pollinate, he said the orchard will produce a third more fruit by having bees. He also wants to attract a host of diverse “good insects” to eliminate pests. “And it’s just beneficial to the environment,” he said.

Do you want to learn more about the Conservation Stewardship Program? Contact your local USDA Service Center.