October 11, 2017

Grimal Grove owner Patrick Garvey provides a tour of his tropical fruit tree farm on Big Pine Key in this file photo.

Contributed Grimal Grove owner Patrick Garvey provides a tour of his tropical fruit tree farm on Big Pine Key in this file photo.

BIG PINE KEY — Grimal Grove, a small farm that features mango, avocado, breadfruit and other exotic, fruit-bearing trees, was torn apart by Hurricane Irma.

The namesake of Adolf Grimal, who established the tropical tree garden in the 1950s, importing soil from the Florida mainland and fruit trees from around the world, the 2-acre property fell into disrepair after his death in 1997.

Nearly 15 years after Grimal died, Patrick Garvey learned of the Cunningham Lane grove and its history in 2011, and bought the land two years later. Garvey won approval for a $5,000 grant, took on hundreds of volunteers and brought the tropical tree garden back from the verge of extinction.

Austin Daly, the grove’s caretaker, described the land’s former state when he came aboard as a volunteer four years ago and the comeback it made shortly thereafter.

“The grove was covered with all of these invasive trees; it used to be a drug den, needles and tires, and then it was so lush in here,” Daly said. “It was like a tropical fruit oasis.”

Now, after the storm, Garvey, who decided not to evacuate and witnessed the destruction wrought firsthand, hopes to resurrect Grimal Grove a second time.

“I was pretty devastated. I stayed through the storm, so I got to see it on day one,” Garvey said. “My guess is that in about two years, it will have that lush look (again). The thing about living in the subtropics is that things grow quickly.”

However, there are obstacles to Grimal Grove’s restoration, according to Garvey. He says that the key to the grove’s success is developing income streams that will allow the farm to become sustainable.

To do that, Garvey plans to spread the gospel of exotic fruit tree farming to Keys residents while guiding those who wish to reimagine their landscapes.

“With everyone losing so many trees, people (want) more trees on their landscape, and I think we can really be that force for those who want edible, tropical fruit,” Garvey said. “I think that might have a successful business side to it.”

Prior to Irma, Grimal Grove produced exotic fruit, such as starfruit and soursop guanabana, that was then sold at farmers markets around the Keys. It also hosted dinners and tours, cultivated strong ties within Big Pine Key and surrounding communities, and built relationships with restaurants in the region.

According to Daly, the grove is one of the few fruit tree farms left in the Keys, making Grimal Grove perhaps the only distributor of exotic fruit from what he describes as a “niche farm.”

“Throughout the whole Keys, there used to be like 125 farms. Now, I only know of maybe three or four,” Daly said. “We’re trying to bring some trees back into the community.”

Though the initial phase of recovery involving the removal of debris from the grove is largely complete, plenty of work remains. With the grove decimated and only a few trees left unscathed, restoration seems sure to be a long process.

One part of the process is to install a fence to keep out hungry animals. Key deer and invasive iguanas are the two main culprits, and though their intrusion is an annoyance, the quest to secure funding for a fence led Garvey to find the reclusive Grimal’s family after years of searching.

“I have a church in Michigan who is looking at donating the money up front. That was actually through Grimal’s whole family,” Garvey said. “It took me four years until I found his family; he was so reclusive that it was hard to get any information.

“They were overwhelmingly positive and helpful, which is really great, because they’re so passionate about trying to help to keep their uncle’s legacy alive,” he added.

The fence is an important, yet relatively small aspect of the recovery effort in the scope of the damage done to the grove, and Daly detailed some of what the storm left in its wake.

“Every single tree was damaged, either with saltwater intrusion or the high winds knocking all the leaves (down) and mangling the branches; that’s room for parasites and insects to get in and mess with the interior of the tree,” said Daly, who evacuated to Mexico by boat and returned four days after Irma. “The water came up about 4 to 5 feet, which has never happened before on this property.”

Though Big Pine Key sustained overwhelming damage from Irma, some trees at the grove survived. Garvey says his efforts to protect his trees from potential hurricane damage earlier this year may have been a factor.

“All those major trees that were still standing — the mango, the avocado and the Malaysian apple — those are the ones I did a hurricane pruning (on) this year,” Garvey said. “That’s probably the reason that they stayed up.

“It was really good timing, because I was debating on whether to do it,” he continued. “Losing fruit production for a year or two is better than losing a tree.”

Adding to the frustration of the grove’s caretakers, in addition to the loss of trees, is their loss of progress to the storm. According to Daly, the farm was on the verge of becoming a key part of the exotic fruit business in the Keys and beyond.

“We’ve been trying to create this local food movement and have this property serve as the epicenter,” Daly said. “Now we’re hustling. With the nonprofit side, we still do plant workshops with the trees, we still have volunteer groups come out here and work, and we also do things with the local schools.”

Garvey also expressed dismay at the progress lost to the storm.

“We were growing interest and support, and people were seeing this as an asset to the community, then all of a sudden this natural disaster happened,” he said.

Though Garvey remains guardedly optimistic, he is also realistic about what has to happen for Grimal Grove to survive. He points out that relationships with local chefs and the selling of produce may not be enough to sustain the farm.

He also says that life in Grimal Grove without his family, who evacuated and no longer has a place to live in the Keys, is a major factor in his ability to restore the farm and make it profitable.

“Although I’m dedicated to trying to make this happen, at the same time it has to be successful,” he said. “It has to be sustainable, (and) we have to find an income stream. It’s not worth it to me to have a family that’s 5,000 miles away to work a grove.”

That said, Garvey hasn’t given up on the grove and its potential to be a force in the exotic fruit business, and potentially beyond.

“We’re giving all the effort we can to get the grove back after this devastating hurricane and being a source for local food again,” he said. “I’m hoping to turn this tragedy into an opportunity.”