Born into citrus, James Ellis wouldn’t have it any other way

A fixture in the citrus industry for years, James Ellis has no plans to stop.

Since birth, James Ellis has been surrounded by citrus. Born in a wooden house in the middle of an orange grove, Ellis didn’t have much choice in the matter. But, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“All my life I’ve been involved in the citrus industry,” Ellis said. “It’s all I know. And, it’s all I want to know.”

Over the course of 79 years, Ellis has touched nearly every aspect of Florida citrus. From childhood summers in his parents’ grove to years spent managing packing houses, every step along the way strengthened Ellis’ passion for the industry.

“I believe in this,” Ellis said. “I’ve watched it go up and down. I’ve watched us go through disasters that we didn’t think we could survive.”

Citrus greening, Ellis said, is just another obstacle the industry will overcome.

“Greening will not be the end,” he said. “There will always be orange juice and Florida will always produce oranges.”

Resilience is a trait Ellis picked up early on.

After high school, Ellis joined the Army and served for three years. He was deployed to South Korea at the tail end of the Korean War. “Mostly clean-up work,” he said.

Upon returning home to Polk County, Ellis married his wife, Shirley, and attended Florida Southern College to study citrus.

From there, he followed the career path he was born to pursue. Starting out as a field agent for Florida Citrus Mutual, Ellis soon moved to citrus packing houses where he spent more than 20 years.Today, Ellis works in citrus licensing and bonding for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Along the way, Ellis developed an eye for art – on citrus crates.

“One day it dawned on me,” he said, “I thought, ‘those labels are beautiful.’”

He spread the word of his interest and calls came in whenever citrus labels were found.

One such call had Ellis racing to a closing St. Petersburg packing house. He arrived to find a woman sweeping vintage citrus labels into the street.

On another occasion, Ellis discovered a box full of labels underneath a packing house’s decaying wooden platform. The paper labels, produced in the 1930s and 40s, were in pristine condition, packed tight enough to protect them from water and dust.

“Today, I have the world’s largest collection of citrus crate labels,” Ellis said. His guess: thousands.

Most of his labels are housed at the Florida Citrus Archives at Florida Southern College. But he has more than a few on hand to show off, just in case someone asks.

Though his collection of labels may have slowed in recent years, retirement still seems far away.

“I just believe in you get up when the sun comes up and work until the sun goes down,” he said. “I believe in this industry. It’s in my lifeblood. I hope to die in it.”

Looking back, Ellis is proud of the career he made in citrus.

Though, becoming a race car driver wouldn’t have been so bad, either.