Joe Franklin, owner of Franklin Farm in Statesboro, Georgia, is one of 64 orange producers in the state. While on a fishing trip in Louisiana in 2009, Franklin noticed countless roadside signs advertising satsumas. Unfamiliar with the tangerine-like citrus, he bought a bag to sample.
“They were the sweetest, juiciest [citrus] I had ever tasted,” he said. “I thought that if they could grow it in Louisiana, that I should be able to grow it at home.”
In 2010, he purchased 200 “Brown Select” satsuma trees and established his first grove. Three years later, he added another 500 trees and continued to plant new stock each successive year. To date he has 4,800 trees planted on 36 acres.
Franklin was among the first to invest in the crop in his native state of Georgia. Three years after his first trees went in the ground, the Lowndes County Extension Service in Georgia collaborated with the Madison County Extension Service in Florida and a private nursery called Loch Laurel Nursery, explained Jake Price, University of Georgia Extension agent/coordinator, Lowndes County. Price estimated that the state has about 42,000 trees planted as of June 2017.
Satsumas may seem like a new arrival in the state, yet Franklin said that when he first investigated the crop, he learned the mandarin orange arrived in the United States in 1876 when the U.S. Minister to Japan, General Robert Van Valkenburgh, shipped some home to his wife. More than a million satsuma trees were imported to the Gulf Coast states between 1908 and 1911, but disease and freezes wiped them out.
Franklin and other growers have revitalized the once-prevalent citrus and are eager to share in the crop’s success countrywide.
“We are selling through fresh markets this year and hopefully we’ll be able to ship some up to New England and the Midwest next year,” he said. “We want to compete with the Cutie and Halo brands.”
Establishing a citrus grove was a new venture for the retired owner of Franklin’s Restaurant, a favorite among locals. He had purchased 97 acres from the estate of former State Senator Joe Kennedy and had prior experience farming, raising peanuts, corn, soybeans and registered Black Angus.
With his discovery of satsumas, his focus shifted to citrus. Because oranges prefer well-drained soil, he plants on an 18-inch-high bed that is 6 to 8 feet wide.
“The roots don’t like to have water on them so this provides good drainage,” he said.
The trees are planted 24 feet apart with 16 feet between each row. He prepares new planting ground with pre- and post-emergent herbicide to ensure the soil is free of weed seeds. He also conducts a soil test to confirm the pH is around 6 to 6.5.
Compared to row cropping, Franklin said that routine maintenance is minimal once the trees are planted. In the spring, he prunes the leaves that are close to the ground. Satsumas are a weeping tree rather than upright, so it’s important to remove the suckers that grow up around the roots once a year.
Mowing is the most time consuming and least favorite part of the job.
“It’s all part of the deal though and it controls the weeds,” he said. “When it’s done, it’s beautiful to look down the rows.”
Keeping the citrus alive in Georgia is more complicated than in subtropical and tropical climates. The potential for freezing temperatures means Franklin must choose cold-tolerant varieties and irrigation. Ideally, micro sprayers run any time the temperature drops below 25 degrees Fahrenheit, though he has had trees survive 14-degree temperatures without protection. The sprays create an ice barrier around the bottom half of the tree.
“They run continuously until the temperatures rise enough to thaw out the ice barrier,” he said.
Georgia growers also opt for a deciduous variety that will lose its leaves.
The frost on March 15, 2017 significantly impacted Franklin’s project yield for the year.
“The frost hit when the trees were blooming and killed the blooms,” he said. “We only have 50 percent of the crop as compared to 2016.”
On the flip side, hurricanes also pose significant challenges. When Hurricane Irma brought powerful winds and rains to Georgia in August, Franklin had about a dozen damaged trees. He estimated that another 50 to 75 were blown over, but could be straightened. As strong as the storm was, he said that Hurricane Matthew in 2016 wreaked more havoc, damaging 25 trees and leaving another 100 that needed to be stood back up.
Because oranges are a new crop in Georgia, pest pressures are low compared to other regions. The virgin soils and comparatively less dense citrus groves have not created as plentiful hosts as in Florida, California or Texas. By comparison, he said that the spray requirements are minimal compared with those of other fruit crops like peaches, pecans and apples. However, scouting and treating for citrus leaf miners, leaf-footed bugs, citrus rust mites, spider mites and orange dog caterpillars is important.
“I’m thankful, but concerned [that] storms like Hurricane Irma could bring pests to Georgia,” he said.
The reality is, the Florida border is only 250 miles from Franklin’s farm and he is concerned that pest pressures could become more problematic in the future. “Hurricane Irma worries me because it can really move those bugs and airborne diseases around,” he said.
He has taken precautions against Florida’s most troublesome Asian citrus psyllid that spreads the devastating, HLB (Huanglongbing) also known as citrus greening disease. The insect is susceptible in cold temperatures and the winter freeze may be one way to help control the pest in Georgia.
“Abandoned groves are a breeding ground for psyllids,” Price said. “We do not have the abandoned groves in Georgia like they do in Florida. We do have a lot of homeowner citrus and that is most likely where we will have a problem if greening becomes an issue up here.
Franklin said that it takes about three years for a tree to begin producing so he’s just starting to get enough to go to market this year. Last year, he harvested about 40,000 pounds of fruit and expects that to increase each year.
His goal is to pick the citrus when it is tree ripe to maximize the flavor. Prime harvest season begins in October and runs through December.
“There is a limited time window to get them harvested and into stores,” he said.
Harvest is done completely by hand, using a specialty pair of curved clippers. Because he strives for tree-ripened fruit, it is imperative to cut them below the stem line so that the stem from one fruit does not puncture the skin of another fruit when packaged.
“We start picking in the morning and by lunchtime we’re packing,” he said.
After being plucked from the tree, the citrus is placed in 6-inch deep lugs and hand-carried to the trailer, which transports the fruit to the packing line. Each fruit is run through a fresh water line and allowed to air dry before being bagged or boxed.
The fruit is packaged in 3-, 5- and 10-pound bags as well as 20-pound boxes. “It takes about 15 baby mandarins to make a 1-pound bag,” he said. “We like to keep it simple.”
The harvest, packing and handling process is part of Franklin’s marketing efforts. Large commercial growers often pick before the fruit is fully tree ripened and apply a wax or dye to keep the fruit fresher and give the skin its color.
“I believe that affects the taste,” he said. “We only pick when the fruit is ready and don’t use wax or dye. People at the farmers market really appreciate knowing that we don’t use those products.”
Currently, Franklin sells his fruit through farmers markets across the state in Savannah and Atlanta and Statesboro, as well as South Carolina and Chattanooga, Tennessee. He also sells to schools in six counties surrounding his farm. Going to the farmers markets and interacting with other people is one of Franklin’s favorite aspects of growing citrus.
“When you’re row cropping … you take your produce to the weigh station and that’s it,” he said.
He is also experimenting with different varieties and types of citrus. He has grapefruit, tangos, Gold Nugget tangerine and Kishu mandarins. The Gold Nugget tangerine is a popular West Coast variety that ripens later in January and February and produces through April. Kishus are a type of mandarin that is seedless and native to the West Coast, but not commercially produced because growers believe it is too small to market.
With the Kishus, he plans to market and sell them slightly differently than other orange varieties and plans to use a clamshell-style package similar to what is used to sell strawberries.
“Baby mandarins have been around a long time in California and in Florida for breeding purposes, but aren’t produced commercially,” he said.
“My logic is that 40 years ago, we never had grape or cherry tomatoes and now they’re popular,” he said. “Baby carrots were introduced in 1989 and have really taken off. Now, they represent 84 percent of the carrot market.”