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South Georgia casts some shade on the Sunshine State’s signature crop

  • Posted on: January 31, 2017
South Georgia casts some shade on the Sunshine State’s signature crop

Five-year-old Kaid Covin is typical of most citrus growers in Georgia. His crop, while plentiful and increasing each season, grows from a single tree in the backyard. Shortly after Kaid was born, his grandfather and great-uncle planted an orange tree from South Florida beside the pond on the family farm in Moultrie. As it matures, the tree puts forth a little more fruit each year. Late in 2016, Kaid harvested a bumper crop of oranges. Kaid’s bounty may well be a harbinger of future prosperity, not just for him but also for Georgia’s budding citrus industry.

“There are a lot of people out there who have one or two citrus trees of some type in their yard,” said Jake Price, Lowndes County Extension Coordinator for the University of Georgia in Valdosta.

In 2013, however, the citrus landscape changed dramatically in Georgia. No longer limited to the odd Meyer lemon or grapefruit tree fruiting in the neighbor’s backyard, Georgia’s citrus industry found viable commercial potential in a small, easy-to-peel fruit called the Satsuma.

“Satsumas are the most cold-hardy mandarin that there is, and to grow citrus in Georgia you’re going to have to have the very cold hardy (varieties). We can get down into the teens, and there are reports that Satsuma can survive 15 to 18 degrees with minimal damage,” Price said.

Every spring since 2014 Price has surveyed Georgia Satsuma growers to check the progress of the fledgling industry. Last year, he counted 40 growers who are tending some 150 acres of citrus orchards in 22 South Georgia counties. Most of the crop is concentrated in Lowndes, Echols and Thomas counties, he said.

“Most of that has been planted since 2014,” Price said. “There is tremendous interest in growing citrus, mostly Satsumas. I have consultations in my office probably daily with people wanting to talk about it.”

Lindy Savelle is one of the many who found inspiration for a business plan in the knowledge that Price and University of Georgia plant researcher Wayne Hanna of Tifton possess.

“I never realized that citrus could grow so well in South Georgia. Several of our friends have trees, but you know you just don’t think about it commercially until you start digging into it and realize, wow, it really does grow well here. With satsumas and tangerines, the colder you can take it without actually freezing the fruit, the sweeter it’s going to taste. It’s the same with lemon and grapefruit,” said Savelle, a citrus grower and co-founder of the Georgia Citrus Association and 1DOG Ventures, a commercial nursery in Sale City that offers citrus trees for sale to commercial and residential growers.

Savelle and her brother, Clay Lamar, retrofitted a 10,000-square-foot tobacco greenhouse in hopes of becoming Georgia’s first APHIS greenhouse, a designation given by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service which would allow them to ship plants outside of Georgia.

“An APHIS greenhouse is very different than a regular greenhouse in that it must be completely free of any possible pest or insect entry,” she said. “That means the greenhouse has to be covered in 50mm screen with every little nook and cranny completely caulked shut. There are also requirements in the entry way for positive pressure and certain chemical applications to prevent spread of disease.”

1 DOG is currently growing two specialty products: citrus trees and fruit and perennial peanut grown cover and hay. The citrus trees are University of Georgia varieties for use by homeowners and commercial growers and include tangerines, grapefruit and lemons. They are patented under the names Sweet Frost, Pink Frost and Grand Frost. The first trees will be available in spring.

“The reason we did the nursery is … we had a really hard time finding trees that were not coming out of an area that has a lot of disease. You can find trees in other states but I didn’t want to be known as the girl who brought disease into the state,” Savelle said. “I want to be known as the girl who helped the industry get started.”

With the help of growers like Kim Jones of Bethel Oaks Farm in Monticello, Fla., Georgia’s citrus growers are actively working to develop markets for the crop they’ll harvest later this year. Jones, who has 800 trees in production in North Florida that will produce mature, marketable fruit later this year, is developing Satsuma juice, simple syrup and jelly to make full use the entire crop, including unmarketable fruit.

“The Satsuma itself, any variety, will produce some oddball fruit, special fruit. It’s not culled but it doesn’t sit well on the shelf. It doesn’t sell on the retail market. Schools don’t want it for the kids because it’s too big a lot of times. It’s got great meat, great juice, but we were seeing growers tossing those special fruit and in my mind I said, we can’t let that taste get away from us,” Jones said. “That was the birth of the juice. I wanted to see if we could take a product that’s got no value and turn it into something that’s valuable for us.”

Jones began juicing satsumas last year, and is marketing the juice to school nutrition departments in hopes of getting the word out.

“We’re still two or three years from seeing (satsumas) in the Whole Foods produce market. We’re trying to get in the school systems first,” Jones said. “If you think about it, most people don’t know what a Satsuma is, but if we can have a generation of kids that recognize what a Satsuma is it would really explode for us down the road. And it really is a better fruit. It’s an absolutely phenomenal fruit.”