Kumquats reign supreme at Dade City festival

They take the cake and the pies at the festival.

The first kumquat tree in St. Joseph took root more than 100 years ago, when C.J. Nathe planted it in his backyard.

He added a few more, and soon he had a small grove on an acre of fertile ground.

The kumquat king, as Nathe was later dubbed, transformed a quiet back road community into the Kumquat Capital of the World.

An open house will take place on Jan. 28 and Jan. 29 at the Kumquat Growers packinghouse and gift shop.

The 19th annual Kumquat Festival is set for Jan. 30 in downtown Dade City.

Margie Neuhofer and her husband Joseph Neuhofer are among founding growers of Kumquat Growers Inc. Neuhofer manages the gift shop. She and Frank Gude show off kumquat products sold at the shop. (Kathy Steele/Staff Photo)

Margie Neuhofer and her husband Joseph Neuhofer are among founding growers of Kumquat Growers Inc. Neuhofer manages the gift shop. She and Frank Gude show off kumquat products sold at the shop.
(Kathy Steele/Staff Photo)

More than 40,000 people are expected to stroll through the historic town square during the festival, which will feature more than 425 vendor booths. There will be arts and crafts, a car and truck show, a health and wellness area, live entertainment, a farmer’s market, the Kumquat Kids Corral, a quilt challenge, and kumquats in pies, cakes, salsas, jams, jellies and chutneys.

No one imagined nearly two decades ago the drawing power of a tiny citrus fruit from Asia, sweet on the outside and tart on the inside.

“The biggest thing that made it a success was people didn’t know what a kumquat was. There was the curiosity of it,” said Frank Gude, president and founding partner in Kumquat Growers Inc., the country’s largest producer and shipper of kumquats, and kumquat products.

Phyllis Smith, Roxanne Barthle and Carlene Ellberg organized the first festival on the lawn of Dade City’s historic courthouse with only a few vendors.

“We started slow, and then it built,” said Gude.

Gude’s family traces its history with kumquat farming to those early plantings decades ago.

The Gudes were one of five original growers who founded the packing cooperative in the early 1970s. Others were Charles Barthle, Joseph and Paul Neuhofer and Fred Heidgerken.

But, kumquat groves dotted the rural landscape for decades before then.

“Every family out here had a little block of kumquats,” said Gude. It didn’t take much to produce an abundant crop. “Depending on how many kids they had (to do the picking), they could have enough to ship kumquats (up north).”

Nathe gets historical credit for starting it all.

The Michigan native had been an employee of nearby Jessamine Gardens nursery for many years. He had a special affection for the small decorative tree with delicate green leaves and orange fruit.

Up north, the kumquat blooms added color and charm to Christmas décor in wreaths, on mantels, and as stylish adornments on gift packages. Or, people wanted a pretty tree for their yards.

But, as Nathe knew, they also could be popped into the mouth and eaten or preserved as marmalade, jams and jellies.

Nathe gave away most of his early harvests to neighbors. But, he soon realized the commercial value of the kumquat, both decorative and edible.

He loaded his kumquats on the rail line and shipped them north by the bushels.

His neighbors took note, and kumquat trees sprouted across the countryside.

As a young boy, Gude, now age 86, and his siblings, had kumquat chores during harvesting seasons. “We’d come home from school to pick kumquats,” he said. “My job especially was to make crates to ship them in. The girls would be out there picking them.”

Gude said local families swapped recipes for kumquat pies, cakes, jellies and jams. Many of those recipes went into a cookbook that was slipped into kumquat gift boxes, and shipped to cities such as New York and Chicago. Outside, the boxes would be decorated with pretty clippings of fruit nestled within leaves.

Agricultural regulations nowadays don’t allow leaves due to the potential for spreading pesticides and plant diseases, Gude said.

But, at the time, the kumquat’s versatility only boosted its popularity.

The trees typically bear fruit three times a year, in May, June and July.

“You pick one crop, and the next crop gets ready,” Gude said.

Kumquat Growers represents about 10 area growers. “We harvest their fruit and market it for them,” Gude said.

At the packinghouse on Gude Road, off State Road 578, a small group of workers are stationed on the assembly line — washing, cleaning and stripping away leaves. Kumquats are packaged in small containers and then boxed for delivery.

In downtown Dade City, a 1950s-style sign inside Olga’s Deli, advertises kumquat refrigerator pie, using a recipe by Rosemary Gude, Frank’s wife, who died in 2014.

The recipe uses a frozen kumquat puree sold by the growers’ cooperative.

As often happens, the festival coincides with Tampa’s pirate invasion and Gasparilla Festival. The first time that happened, organizers of the kumquat fest held their breath.

But, they need not have worried. The tiny kumquat triumphed.

“Different crowds,” Gude said.

Even after all these year, Gude is amazed that some people still don’t know what a kumquat is.

At the open house, Gude and Roger Swain, the former host of The Victory Garden on PBS, will explain to visitors “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About a Kumquat.”

There also will be tours of the groves and the packinghouse, free samples of kumquat products and a farmer’s market.

Donations for hot dogs will go to the American Cancer Society.

For those who want to do a little shopping, the gift shop is stocked with all things kumquat, including pie, marmalades, butter, chutney and salsa. There’s even sweet or spicy barbecue sauce and vinaigrette, featuring kumquats.

Free samples are always available, said Margie Neuhofer, who manages the shop.

And, those samples typically turn into sales, she said.

“Once they taste it, they want to buy it,” Neuhofer said.

At the festival’s first open house, people lined up along the road waiting to get in.

Last year more than 1,000 people stopped by, and Neuhofer expects this year to be no different.

“A lot of people like it better than the festival,” she said.

What: Kumquat Growers Open House
When: Jan. 28 and Jan. 29 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Where: 31647 Gude Road, in St. Joseph
What: Grove and packing house tours, farmer’s market, free kumquat samples and kumquat products for sale in the gift shop
Cost: Free

What: 19th Annual Kumquat Festival
When: Jan. 30 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where: Historic downtown Dade City
What: Music, arts & crafts, car and truck show, food trucks, family fun and lots of kumquats
Cost: Admission is free, transportation from satellite parking areas is free, and city-owned parking lots in downtown Dade City are free.

Published January 27, 2016

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