Satsuma mandarins in Louisiana

PHOTOS BY DANNY CAMARDELLE, UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.
Joseph Ranatza is the fifth generation of his family to grow the profitable satsuma mandarins in Louisiana.

“Satsumas are the perfect fruit,” says Jimmy Boudreaux. These mandarins are small enough to eat in one snack, are seedless, peel easily and are very sweet. They also are a traditional citrus fruit in Louisiana, though they are barely holding their own in commercial acreage in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

PHOTO BY JIMMY BOUDREAUX.

Boudreaux, cooperative extension fruit and vegetable specialist for Louisiana State University, says it has been a tough slog for all coastal orchard crops since Katrina, with many farms wiped out completely. That’s no different for satsuma mandarins, which he says have been grown here since the late 1800s. There was a large planting in the 1920s and 1930s, and an LSU breeding program late in the century gave a boost to the fruit growers; but that was then.

“Katrina came and destroyed everything, and not just orchards,” Boudreaux says. The hurricane destroyed homes, equipment and crops of growers. It put a damper on a tree crop that has always had such promise.

That promise is still there, according to Joseph Ranatza, who was born and raised in Belle Chasse and is the fifth generation of Louisiana farmers in his family to grow satsumas. His family came to the area in the early part of the 20th century, and satsumas have always been a profitable crop for them. He is still planting them, though in much smaller plots.

Ranatza currently has 62 acres of citrus and nursery ground in Plaquemines Parish, where most of the citrus in the state is grown. About half of his orchard is in navel oranges, but 25 acres are planted with satsuma mandarins. He not only loves the crop and its place in Louisiana history, but he thinks there is a future for it.

“The demand is greater than what the supply is,” Ranatza says, and he sells all he can grow. “The demand has gotten greater and greater, for several reasons.”

His nursery for satsumas shows Ranatza’s commitment to the future of the crop in Louisiana.

He says about half of the satsuma acreage was destroyed by Katrina, which has boosted prices due to the loss of supply. The mandarins are a traditional fruit during the Thanksgiving/Christmas season in the area, and there simply isn’t enough to go around now. Another reason for the decline in supply is that the farmers who have grown satsumas are getting older, and they aren’t planting new acreage. Few young farmers have shown interest in the crop.

Ranatza’s farm, which is 25 miles south of New Orleans and was 15 miles from the eye of the hurricane, was also damaged severely by Katrina. He lost 5 acres of citrus trees, but has since replanted them, and more.

Unlike most satsuma growers, whom Boudreaux says sell the bulk of their crop through local direct-sales outlets of one type or another, Ranatza’s primary market is big chain stores. Wal-Mart and Winn-Dixie buy all the fruit he can produce. He raises four varieties in order to have fruit throughout the season. The Louisiana Early and St. Ann varieties are early-season trees, and Brown’s Select comes off in midseason. All of those were developed through the LSU breeding program and produce good fruit. The late-season variety he grows is the traditional Owari, which is still a reliable tree.

Planting preparation varies from grower to grower, Ranatza says, but the standard method is to plant trees on a raised bed. His are about 18 inches high and 12 feet wide, with 23 feet or 25 feet between rows and 18 feet between trees. He also has some dwarf trees planted 8 feet apart, which yields more trees and more fruit production per acre. Those close trees are grown on Flying Dragon rootstock, while the 18-foot spacings are grown on either Trifoliata or Carriza rootstock.

“Personally, I like the Flying Dragon trees because they’re smaller and it’s easier to harvest the fruit,” Ranatza says. He prunes them and tops them at about 8 feet in height, which allows them to be harvested without use of a ladder. The 18-foot spacings are topped at 10 to 12 feet. Proper pruning is critical to getting good fruit quality, as well as allowing penetration of insecticides into the center of the trees.

Satsuma mandarins are “the perfect fruit,” with harvest in Louisiana from October to January.

Ranatza gets about 70 inches of rainfall annually, so he needs no irrigation. He does have a strict fertility program, using a 13-13-13 granular fertilizer with micronutrients added to boost taste to the fruit, and applies it to his rich Mississippi River bottom soil three times during the growing season so the rains don’t leach it out. He aims for 10 pounds of fertilizer per 10-year-old tree per year.

In the old days, there were no pests that bothered satsumas, he says, but now the leaf miner is a big one. In addition, the Asian citrus psyllid is present in the state, bringing the dreaded citrus greening disease with it. However, Ranatza says that Plaquemines Parish has a spraying program that has been coordinated with growers of citrus to control the psyllid. As a result, he has seen none of the disease.

The parish sprays twice a year, in May and October, and Ranatza also has an active insecticide program. He sprays about once a month during the summer, rotating the use of Danitol, Provado and Agrimek to avert resistance in the insects. Those chemicals cover the citrus psyllid, the leaf miner and other pests. The psyllid is the big worry, because if the citrus greening disease takes hold, it not only lends a bitter taste to the mandarins, it also yellows and eventually kills the tree.

His other big problem is one that affects many growers along the Louisiana coast, says Boudreaux: salt. Accumulation of salt in the soil is common here, and Boudreaux says that planting on raised beds and/or adding subsurface drainage to the fields are the primary methods of management. Gypsum can also be used to neutralize salt damage, which can gradually kill trees.

“We use gypsum, and that helps out the root system of the trees. We use about 6 pounds per tree per season,” Ranatza says. He notices a real difference in treated trees.

It turns out that the major long-term threat to satsuma and other citrus trees in Louisiana over the decades has been freezing temperatures. Temperatures traditionally have dropped into the killing zone about every 10 years on average, Boudreaux estimates, and that has been a major brake on commercial citrus production in the state as acreage is killed in the process.

“In Louisiana, you’re not a citrus grower until you’ve planted a crop three times,” Boudreaux says. That old saying came about because of the very real danger of freezes, in addition to hurricanes. Ranatza says that his last major freeze was in 1989, and his sense as a longtime grower is that it isn’t just luck; he feels that climate change has reduced the chances of freezing, and that has improved the chances of satsuma survival. He can’t afford freeze protection for his small acreage, but he’s starting to feel that it is less necessary.

Ranatza has a stake in the future of satsuma plantings in the state. He also maintains a citrus nursery, and tries to keep about 100,000 young trees on hand to sell every season. He sells them all over the Southeast.

“They’re buying more trees now than ever,” he notes, but adds that almost all of them are sold to homeowners replacing backyard trees; commercial growers are planting very few trees. “Some farmers don’t even have a place to live yet. How can you plant an orchard when you don’t have a place to live?”

He emphasizes that he is bullish on the future of satsumas, primarily because of the market demand. With his own packing shed, including a PLU sticker machine for branding and tracking of the fruit, he is set up to do business from October into January with his Star Nursery label. Much of his fruit goes into the 3-pound bags preferred by the chain stores, but he also sells fruit loose in 40-pound boxes. Harvest labor has been assured since he joined the federal H2A program, and he thinks farmers are missing out on a great crop if they don’t plant satsumas.

Boudreaux agrees. Satsumas hold on the tree well and can be eaten green or ripe, he says. The seedless fruit is great for snacking, and its reputation as a delicious winter holiday food and gift bodes well for its future. There is definitely a profit to be made, with many growers selling from roadside stands since this thin-skinned citrus is too soft for long-distance shipping. There are currently only about 600 acres planted in the state and the LSU breeding program has been discontinued, but there are great varieties and prices to be had for the adventuresome.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.