South Georgia Citrus

Satsuma production is taking off in south Georgia. Twenty-two counties were growing commercial citrus as of March 2016.

Citrus production is ripening, with potential for growth in south Georgia, according to University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources agent Jacob Price (BSA – Agricultural Education, ’90), based in Lowndes County, Georgia.

More than 150 acres of satsuma oranges have been planted in south Georgia in the last four years. And UGA scientist Wayne Hanna recently released a seedless tangerine, lemon and grapefruit after years of research on the UGA Tifton campus.

Hanna’s goal is to develop citrus plants that could grow across the southernmost part of the U.S.

“(If) you stretch a line across the United States, and a homeowner below that line wants to grow a tangerine, lemon or a grapefruit in their backyard, they should be able to grow it,” Hanna said. In Georgia, Hanna places that line through Cordele.

While Hanna’s research targets homeowners, Price’s goal is to provide commercial growers with an alternative crop to produce. In 2013, he held the first official satsuma meeting in Georgia. The popularity of satsumas has grown so much in recent years, Price believes the number of acres planted in Georgia will at least double in 2017.

There are challenges: cold weather, markets and the strong possibility of citrus greening, an infection that ruins groves. Price warns new growers that it only takes one cold night to cause a great deal of damage to the trees; fruit on the trees can freeze at 28 degrees Fahrenheit.

Most of this fruit is available at the same time, making it crucial to develop markets. One acre of 10-year-old satsumas can easily produce 120,000 pieces of fruit. If no additional trees are planted in the state and current plantings survive, there could be 18 million pieces of Georgia fruit that need to find a market.

“Some farmers who grow vegetables or blueberries already have the infrastructure in place to process and move citrus,” Price said. “Their facilities can possibly be made available when most Georgia citrus ripens in mid-November. As of now, I do not know of any buying points for citrus, but one of the main focuses of the Georgia Citrus Growers Association, which was officially established at the Lowndes County Extension office on Oct. 5, 2016, is to try and develop markets.”

According to Price, as of March 2016, there were 22 counties in south Georgia in which commercial citrus grows. While expanding the satsuma crop appears inevitable, it may not happen quickly. There simply aren’t enough trees to accommodate the growing number of interested producers.

“Growers want more trees to plant this spring, but they (the trees) just aren’t there,” Price said. “I know many growers who have placed orders for trees for spring of 2018. It takes about 18 months to produce a 1-gallon satsuma tree.”

Hanna cautions new growers who are eager to grow multiple acres of citrus. An acre can house approximately 145 trees. Producers need to make sure they can handle 1 acre before planting 20 acres.

“It’s like anything else, you’ve got to get a feel for it,” Hanna said. “‘When do I do this?’ ‘When do I do that?’ It depends on a lot of variables, like temperature and the response you’re getting from your plant.”

Hanna was one of the first experts Price called on when he began to hold regular meetings regarding potential satsuma production in Georgia. Some of Hanna’s words of caution stem from growers who want to speed up a process that takes time.

“I think one of the biggest concerns is that growers are going to buy small plants and want to grow them fast. They’re going to put nitrogen to them, and they’re going to pay the price,” Hanna said. “You don’t want to put too much nitrogen on after the first of June. That new growth will really be sensitive. You want hardened-off growth when the cold weather comes.”

But, Price said, farmers with satsumas are finding reasonable market prices, whether at local schools, farmers markets or fruit stands. Some larger vegetable and blueberry farmers have brokers to sell their blueberries and vegetables, and those brokers may be able to sell the satsumas as well. Though there are issues to work out, with careful planning, the satsuma industry has the potential to thrive in Georgia.

By Clint Thompson