Though it is far from ranking high as one of the state’s top commodities, citrus is quickly becoming an agricultural buzzword in South Georgia.
In August 2013, Lowndes County Extension Agent Jake Price coordinated a meeting with help from the University of Florida for local farmers to discuss the possibility of growing satsumas in South Georgia. With a standing room only crowd of more than 90 people, Price said he knew there was a lot of interest but was still surprised at the response.
“Five or six years ago, you would find a few citrus trees mostly in people’s backyards,” Price said. “There was only a handful growing satsumas commercially.”
A satsuma is a seedless mandarin, which has a history of being grown in North Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana since the late 1800s; however, much of the acreage has fluctuated because of severe freezes in those areas.
Price, who maintains a database of Georgia’s citrus production, states there were approximately 1,500 satsuma trees in 2013 for commercial production or planted on a trial basis. With the citrus frenzy sweeping through the state, the number as of April 2017 represents more than 43,000 trees. The majority of commercially grown satsuma trees are planted in Bulloch, Clinch, Lowndes, Echols, Mitchell, Pierce, Thomas, and Wayne counties.
Price said the weather is the main reason satsumas are a good fit for South Georgia.
“Satsumas actually need some colder temperatures to create a sweet taste,” he said, “which is why they are not grown in traditional citrus growing regions.”
After the initial meeting in 2013, Price started gathering more information on satsumas. Through a collaboration with Valdosta City Schools, he established a test plot of satsuma trees at J.L. Lomax Elementary School.
“We are using the school as a research lab,” Price said. “Once the trees become mature and start producing fruit, we will provide satsumas to the school for lunches and send them home with the children.”
Using the standard variety called “Owari” grafted onto 10 rootstocks, Price and his team now have 60 test trees, plus an additional 50 trees around the border.
Price said the goal of the rootstock trial is to see if the newer rootstocks—many that have never been tested—will yield more fruit and maintain the cold hardiness of the rootstock that is most commonly used.
“This is our fourth year and in years five and six we should have several years of yield data that will make our findings more reliable,” Price said. “We will continue to collect data for 10 to 12 years and learn about fruit quality and cold tolerance.”
“It is surprising to some people that here in South Georgia you can grow a diverse mix of citrus. We have lemons, key limes, navel oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, and satsumas.”– Tony Smith
A Family Tradition
In Pavo, just outside of Thomasville, Tony Smith’s family has grown citrus trees for more than 40 years.
“We still have citrus trees that my parents planted back in the 1970s,” said Smith, who along with his wife, Tamara, own The Fruit Factory. “It is surprising to some people that here in South Georgia you can grow a diverse mix of citrus. We have lemons, key limes, navel oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, and satsumas.”
It wasn’t until Smith moved back to the family farm that he started considering growing citrus commercially.
“I was playing with the idea of growing citrus about 10 years ago,” said Smith, who also operates a freshwater aquarium business. “I planted a few satsuma trees for commercial production four years ago, so we are now beginning to harvest marketable fruit from these trees.”
Smith is also in partnership with a group of local growers that now represent one of the largest satsuma operations in South Georgia.
“Through our group, we have about 10,000 trees in Thomas and Grady counties,” said Smith, who predicts to harvest between 100,000 to 200,000 pounds of satsumas this year. “We also added about 1,000 trees in Decatur this year.”
Smith explained that with agriculture there are variables a farmer cannot control.
“Last year we were loaded with fruit when Hurricane Irma came in September,” Smith said. “We had to remove some of the fruit to keep the trees from being too heavy. We lost some fruit, but saved the trees by not having a lot of weight on them.”
While Smith and other South Georgia citrus growers experienced some loss due to the hurricane, it does not compare with Florida’s citrus devastation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced a decrease in the size of the Florida citrus crop due to Hurricane Irma. The agency estimates Florida’s orange production for the 2017 to 2018 season at 45 million boxes, which represents a 35 percent decrease from last season and the lowest crop size in more than 75 years.
“Even with the growth we have seen here in South Georgia the past few years, it is a drop in the bucket in replacing what Florida has lost,” said Smith, “but it does show there is a need for more citrus production.”
On the Georgia-Florida border, Kim Jones, with Bethel Oaks Farms, started planting satsuma trees at the persuasion of his grandchildren.
“I looked at planning blueberries and even olives,” said Jones, who has also farmed timber and row crops in Colquitt County. “My grandchildren love satsumas, and I wanted them to be involved.”
Jones, who has approximately 2,800 satsuma trees, said patience is an essential factor in growing citrus.
“I have 800 trees that are 4 years old, and they just started producing marketable fruit,” Jones said. “This winter will be the fifth year, and we should yield about 50 to 70 pounds of fruit per tree.”
Jones explained that as a satsuma tree matures and reaches the seven-year mark, it will average 200 pounds of citrus.
In addition to growing satsumas, Jones and his wife, Angela, opened Florida Georgia Citrus, a 12,000-square-foot packing facility that provides processing and shipping for local and regional citrus growers.
“There are a lot of mature trees in North Florida and Alabama that are producing satsumas now,” Jones said. “In Georgia, most of the trees are less than 4 years old, so it will take a few years for them to reach maturity, and this will be a big market for our area.”
Jones has also developed a secondary market for satsumas that includes the production of juices, jellies, and syrups.
He explained that the fresh fruit market is where the bulk of the money is made; however, there are a lot of satsumas that don’t meet the visual standards.
“We use what we call the ‘No.2’ satsumas for making the products like juice and jelly,” Jones said. “We are using our satsumas, as well as ones we get from other growers.”
Jones said the No. 2 satsumas have the same taste but the coloring or size might not be as marketable.
“We juice the fruit and freeze it, this way we can enjoy it all year,” Jones said. “We call it liquid fruit. It is pure juice.”
Jones is an advocate for the citrus industry in North Florida and South Georgia. He currently serves on the board for both the Cold Hardy Citrus Association and the Georgia Citrus Association (GCA).
Formed last year, the Cold Hardy Citrus Association was established to represent citrus growers in North Florida, Alabama, and South Georgia.
“There are multiple citrus associations in Florida, most of them are regional,” he said, “but we felt that we need to have our own voice.”
“In Georgia, most of the trees are less than 4 years old, so it will take a few years for them to reach maturity, and this will be a big market for our area.” — Kim Jones
Lindy Savelle, president of the GCA, said the interest in Georgia’s citrus market has exploded in the past four years.
The first GCA meeting took place in October 2016 with 27 members. The following year the number soared to more than 270 in attendance. The 2018 meeting, which was held in Tifton, had more than 300 growers, researchers, vendors, and industry experts.
“It is developing into a viable commercial industry,” Savelle said. “I have received calls from the big players…Dole, Del Monte, and Seald Sweet. They are asking about grapefruit, lemons, and navels. It has reached a level far beyond satsumas.”
Savelle, who co-owns 1 DOG Ventures, a citrus nursery in Mitchell County, said, one of the most significant issues facing Georgia’s citrus industry is supply and demand.
“Typically growers have to wait 12 to 18 months after placing an order for satsuma trees,” said Savelle, who started 1 DOG Ventures with her brother, Clay Lamar, in 2016. “There are only a few nurseries in Georgia. We were one of the first, and then others have opened. We want to grow the best trees we can to meet the demand and protect the investment that growers have made in putting trees in the ground.”
With three new cold-tolerant citrus varieties developed by Dr. Wayne Hanna, a professor in the University of Georgia (UGA) College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, commercial growers and homeowners now have the option of planting cold-hardy tangerines, lemons, and grapefruits.
Savelle said 1 DOG Ventures is exclusively licensed to propagate and sell the UGA varieties.
“We have a commercial grower in Mitchell County that is planting 2,800 of the UGA trees,” Savelle said. “These are people who believe in the UGA product and Dr. Hanna.”
Though pleased with the excitement surrounding citrus in Georgia, Savelle said she is not surprised by the expanding interest.
“It is something different that growers and homeowners want to try,” said Savelle, “and a day doesn’t go by that I don’t get a call from someone interested in growing citrus in their backyard or commercially.”
As part of her work with the GCA, Savelle is focusing her attention on educating legislators and the general public about the vital role citrus can play in Georgia’s agricultural landscape.
“As an association, we are committed to growing our community of growers, while remaining united in representing and protecting Georgia’s citrus industry,” she said. “Our mission is to be a positive voice for the industry here in South Georgia.”