SOUTH FEATURES


Sweet Citrus Success

Satsuma orchard expands the range of this unique fruit
By Patrick White


When Lynn Simon (pronounced "see-mown") decided to start an agriculture operation 15 years ago in Kaplan, La., he wasn't exactly sure what crop he wanted to grow. With the help of the Louisiana Agriculture Department and Louisiana State University (LSU) Extension personnel, Simon settled on satsumas, a citrus fruit popular in the state, but typically grown farther south and east in the New Orleans area. "The ag department wanted to get some satsumas started in our area, and we were interested, so we dove right in," he explains.

Satsumas are a mandarin orange (sometimes called satsuma tangerines) and are about half the size of a typical orange. "The fruit is terrific, and they're so easy to peel - the peel just rips right off of it," says Simon.

What began as a hobby has grown, and today Simon Citrus (www.satsumafarm.com) has more than 1,000 satsuma trees in its orchard, each capable of producing roughly 500 pounds of fruit in a good year. "That's a pretty significant orchard for satsumas," Simon says. His father, Donald, plays a large role in running the day-to-day operations of the family business.


Harvesting is a family affair.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF SIMON CITRUS FARM.

While the satsuma trees are the focus of the orchard, it's actually a nearby 2-acre irrigation pond that helps ensure the trees can grow in what is not traditionally a satsuma-growing zone. The irrigation system provides water for the trees during warm months, but more important is the protection it offers during cold periods. "We use it for free protection. Satsumas cannot survive in cold temperatures," Simon says. His orchard is only about 20 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, and that's roughly the northern limits of the satsuma tree, he explains. "We're in a moderate zone. Fifty miles north of us, the trees probably wouldn't survive in colder weather. If you get down to about 23 degrees for any amount of time, the trees will die."

Simon Citrus developed its irrigation system with the help of LSU researchers. "We have a sprinkler head at each tree. If temperatures are going to be below 25 degrees for more than 24 hours, we will sprinkle the trees with water," says Simon. "We need to put at least half-gallon of water per minute onto each tree. That keeps the tree at 32 degrees and helps insulate the tree so it can survive." It's a significant amount of water, and it needs to be pumped quickly, he emphasizes.


Donald "Duck" Simon and owner Lynn Simon with the washing machine.

An irrigation sprinkler head is aimed at the base of each tree and puts out a continuous, fine spray of water that coats the surface at the base of the tree. "We're not trying to keep the whole tree alive," Simon explains. "We're trying to keep the base of the tree - the rootstock and where the tree was grafted to the rootstock - alive." Directing the water about 1 to 2 feet above ground level, where the scaffold branches start coming off the graft, is critical. "If you keep that area alive, even if the rest of the tree freezes, you can trim all the dead stuff off and in two years you'll have a full-blown orchard again, because the tree grows very rapidly."

In Kaplan, the coldest temperatures are usually seen in December and January. "If we can make it to February, we're usually pretty good," says Simon. However, there are many sleepless nights in the preceding months that require constant vigilance, checking temperatures, and if the irrigation system needs to be run, patrolling the orchard to be sure that every spray head is working properly and there's no freezing of trees or the irrigation system itself.

Because all of the pipes are buried, the Rain Bird irrigation system was installed prior to the planting of any trees. Once the system was installed, Simon planted 300 satsuma trees in the first year. "I wanted to get those in the ground and make sure they would grow properly before we put in any more," he recalls. Once it was clear that the soil would support the trees and that the climate, with the help of irrigation, was suitable, he kept adding trees.

The trees were planted as bare rootstock ("They were just sticks," Simon jokes) as a way to keep costs down - at the time about $5 each versus $20 to $30 each for a slightly larger tree from a nursery. After just four years of growing, the trees had grown to 6 to 7 feet tall and were producing fruit that could be sold to the public, though the quality of the fruit improves as the tree matures, Simon points out.

There are a number of different satsuma varieties available. The most common variety is the Owari. "That's really the standard," says Simon. "Then there are other varieties, such as the Armstrong and the St. Ann, which ripen a little bit earlier, but may not have quite the same quality of fruit. The majority of the Simon Citrus orchard is a variety known as Brown's Select. That is a satsuma that was developed by LSU and was designed to be able to handle colder temperatures," notes Simon.


Freeze protection developed by LSU.

The orchard also has about 300 Owari satsumas, because they ripen a week or two later and it helps to spread out the harvest season. This lets Simon Citrus begin selling in mid-October and continue selling into January some years. "Before we can begin selling each year, the state agriculture department has to come and test our fruit to make sure the sugar content is high enough," Simon explains.

It's impossible to evaluate the ripeness of a satsuma by color during the early season because all satsumas are still green on the outside at this time, whether the fruit on the inside is ripe or not. This causes some growers to try to get a jump on the market by selling too early, says Simon. "We wait for the Agriculture Commission - whenever they say we're ready to go, then we're ready to go," he explains.

Simon Citrus sells a significant amount of satsumas through its website. "There are transplanted Cajuns all over the U.S. who just love this fruit and have to have it," says Simon. The only three states the orchard does not ship to are California, Arizona and Florida, based on state rules restricting or prohibiting fruit from being shipped in. Florida just became off-limits last year, due to concerns over the spread of sweet orange scab, he states. "Florida had been one of our biggest markets, and our customers there were very disappointed we could no longer ship to them," Simon adds. "Florida grows mostly juice oranges - the navel and the sweet oranges. They don't have many satsumas."


Shipping to market.

The satsumas at Simon Citrus are generally packed in 40-pound bushel boxes, as well as half and quarter-bushel boxes. "Most of our clients will buy a full bushel box, and then share them with friends and family," says Simon. Before the fruit can be packaged and shipped, it must first be washed. "We have a wash line that the fruit goes through to take off any residue and dirt. Then they are put in a 1 percent bleach solution to be sure there isn't any kind of fungus or mold growing on the fruit," he explains. Because it can take five days for shipped fruit to be delivered, this prevents any mold growth if the fruit becomes moist during this period.


Donald "Duck" Simon putting satsumas through the washing process

Initially, all fruit was washed by hand, but as the company began to grow this became too cumbersome and time consuming. Simon found a solution in a simple wash line from Market Farm Implement (www.marketfarm.com) designed for cleaning fruits and vegetables. "We found that it works perfectly for our needs," he says of the machine that has greatly enhanced efficiency.

Harvesting is another time-consuming process because all of the fruit must be picked by hand. Teams of high school students and local retirees do most of the work and are paid by the amount of fruit picked. In addition to mail order, fruit is also sold at the farm, though pick-your-own is not encouraged due to insurance liability concerns.

The bulk of sales at Simon Citrus is wholesale. "That's probably 75 percent of our sales," says Simon. Wholesale buyers are often purchasing for grocery stores or school systems. Because of how easy satsumas are to peel, "they're really a great snack fruit," he states, "and they're really well suited for children." Arkansas and Alabama are among the orchard's largest wholesale markets. "For wholesales, we have what's called our 'field grade,'" says Simon. "The fruit is all washed, but we don't do any kind of sorting or grading."


Celebrating the Omelette Festival in Abbeville, La.

During the growing season, there's a steady list of chores to keep on top of. For starters, the trees are sprayed with malathion to control stinkbugs. "If you can imagine puncturing a ziplock bag with a pin, that's what the stinkbug will do to the satsuma. The fruit will look perfectly fine when it's green, but as it ripens air will get into the puncture hole and that section of the satsuma will start to dry out and rot," Simon explains. "We have to keep the stinkbugs under control or they can wipe out the entire orchard."

Spraying is done every two to three weeks once the fruit begins to get larger, usually starting in June or July. Whiteflies are another pest that is watched because of the "sooty mold" they can put on the fruit, he adds. "Washing will take it off, but it's a lot more tedious process to get that residue off." Malathion is also effective for controlling whiteflies. Simon credits LSU researchers for helping him to keep abreast of any pest or disease pressures to watch for, and for helping to develop treatment programs if there are any.

A 500-gallon PTO mist blower is used on the back of a Belarus tractor. "It takes about 2,000 gallons to do the whole orchard," says Simon. The tractor is driven down each row, spraying one side of each tree at a time. "We've really had to adapt the tractor for the orchard," he adds. "My dad is sort of a jack-of-all-trades, and he's welded on all sorts of guards to protect the wiring and the hoses from the tree branches that are constantly rubbing against the tractor." Fully mature, each tree in the orchard stands 12 to 15 feet tall and covers an area nearly 20 feet in diameter. The Simon Citrus orchard is planted in rows 20 feet apart with trees spaced 15 feet apart.

Another perpetual task is weed and grass control. The area under the trees is kept as bare ground. "In the winter, you want bare dirt because that tends to warm the trees. If you have a blanket of grass or mulch, that keeps the heat down. You want the heat to rise from the earth," he points out. An electric sprayer mounted on a Kubota is used to apply Roundup on a regular basis. The row middles are mowed using a brush hog.

There's also plenty of pruning work to be done. "Once we're sure the last freeze has occurred - usually late February or early March - we'll go through and thin out the trees. If there are branches that are growing down, we trim those off, because with the weight of the fruit on the tree, even branches growing up will droop down toward the ground. Sometimes we have so much fruit on the tree that it will actually split the branches," says Simon. "You want your branches growing in an upward direction to help with the droop." Extended pole chain saws are generally used for this task, with the branches piled in the row middles, and then mulched with the brush hog.

Simon says the summer provides a lull in activity around the orchard, a time when mowing and scouting for pests are the two main chores. It's also a chance to reflect on 15 years of success in growing satsumas. "There's a lot to it that we didn't know about when we got started, but we've tried to learn on the fly," says Simon. "A lot of it is just figuring out what works for you in your area, because when it comes to growing satsumas, every area is different."

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.