(originally printed in the KW Record - Fall 2005)
While the average orange-eater might not know the difference between a Minneola and a Temple, Duane and Jean Erb certainly do. In fact, this hard-working husband-and-wife team can tell you about all kinds of different oranges, tangelos, tangerines and grapefruit, having dedicated 25 years to the citrus business and building a fruitful family venture along the way.
"I used to help some folks who brought fruit in (to this area from U.S. fruit-growing regions during the winter)," recalls Duane. "I'd help them unload it and told them, 'if you ever decide you don't want to do this anymore, I'll do it.' One day, they took me upon it."
That was 25 years ago and the beginning of The Orange Barn, a business owned by Jean and managed by Duane (who also owns Duane Erb Construction Inc.) that brings freshly-picked citrus fruit from the U.S. to the couple's Millbank-based store.
"We moved the business to Millbank. It was handier for us and gave our children part-time work after school."
In time, it also built a loyal clientele - one that savors the Erb's commitment to quality.
"Our fruit is always fresh. If it's picked on a Monday, we'll have it by the end of the week. It's picked when it's ripe and it's usually bigger, juicier and better tasting. It's not artificially coloured ... and we inspect it carefully; we replace anything that's spoiled. We've also dealt with the same packing houses for most of our 25 years, mostly in Florida and sometimes California ... and know that certain areas have better fruit. We offer it at a good price, too."
"We basically enjoy good fruit," adds Jean. "So that's what we give our customers."
Each year between December and March, those customers purchase anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 cases of fruit. Each case holds an average of 80 oranges and 36 grapefruit.
"We sell by the case or half-case," notes Duane, adding that fresh Citrus keeps well when it's stored in a cool, dry place like a cold cellar or put in a plastic bag and refrigerated.
When the Orange Barn's doors officially open for the season, citrus-lovers will line up two hours ahead of time - many of whom are now longtime customers and friends of the Erbs, coming from as far away as Owen Sound, Toronto and London and enjoy a visit with Duane's father who has been with the business since its beginning. "For a lot of people, it's a tradition," muses Jean of their opening night.
Inside the store customers can sample assorted fruit before buying it. "We like them to try it because all fruit tastes different," explains Duane who compares the outwardly unattractive Page orange to candy and jokingly recommends a bib to anyone about to enjoy a juicy Minneola - a favourite among kids.
This hospitality is balanced by the Erb's ability to serve their customers quickly and efficiently.
"It's first-come, first-served and (with the help of their four children and hired students) we keep it moving quickly we've sold up to 1,000 cases in just a few hours."
After opening Friday night, "we'll be open Saturday, 9 am, to 5 p.m. If there's anything left, we'll be here six days (Monday to Saturday), 9 a.m. to 5 p.m."
Following that, rather than marking it down, the Erbs typically donate remaining product to the Food Bank or other organizations. "We'll give it to whoever needs it and while it's still fresh."
In addition to citrus fruit, Orange Barn also carries bulk bags of freshly roasted pecans, cashews, peanuts and mixed nuts, all of which can be sampled before purchase.
The Erbs also extend their services to help others raise money. "Schools, churches and teams use (our product) for fundraising. They usually start selling after Thanksgiving and the fruit comes in by the first of December. All they have to do is contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org."
To be part of the delicious fun, visit The Orange Barn on Waterloo Street, Millbank, beside Millbank Family Furniture, 519-595-4337.
Jean and Duane Erb.