Planting a new block of citrus in the era of HLB is not a decision to be taken lightly. And, heading into the endeavor without a lot of citrus experience makes the choice even more daunting.
But Chuck Allison, Owner of Spring Valley Farms near Umatilla, saw opportunity with the crop and took the plunge into citrus. Allison had raised cattle and hay on his property since 2004, and in 2008, planted blueberries on his farm as that market was heating up, followed by citrus in 2012.
Prior to farming, he had worked at Duda Farm Fresh Foods as a Manager of Business Analysis and then another 23 years for Prudential, working his way up to National Director for Agricultural Investments for the company. He says working with both companies taught him the value of building a great team of employees and learning from other successful farms.
“Working with a family like the Dudas, I got to learn about their morals and good business practices,” he says. “And, working with Prudential, I got to see all facets of agriculture. Both were wonderful experiences and helped teach me how successful farmers operate all over the country.”
Allison put that knowledge to work when he planted blueberries. He established a marketing relationship with Wish Farms a couple years after the planting and built a packing facility on the farm.
“Wish Farms does an excellent job with blueberry marketing due to their year-round presence and customer profile,” Allison says. “We have expanded the packinghouse to pack our own berries and other local growers.”
With a few years of blueberry growing under his belt, Allison decided to investigate planting citrus. He began asking questions about managing citrus in the midst of HLB from growers and researchers. He investigated which varieties would provide the best economic returns. He zeroed in on ‘Tango,’ ‘Early Pride,’ and navels. “Tango” comprises most of the 100 acres. It is an easy-peel, seedless mandarin.
“Through my work with Prudential, I was able to see what California growers had been doing with ‘Cuties’ and ‘Halos’ and how profitable the tangerines and clementines had been,” Allison says. “The ‘Tango’ is a high-value, fantastic piece of fruit.”
Allison says ‘Halos’ and ‘Cuties’ have established a strong market and consumer demand and will help pave the way for an East Coast easy-peel, seedless mandarin. And, market windows don’t overlap too much, giving room for success. Most California fruit comes in after January. Chile fruit comes in ahead of Florida.
“If we can hit the October through December window when there is not a large volume of mandarins on the worldwide market, Florida has an opportunity to find a spot in that window, if we can find the right varieties,” he says.
Beyond the market window, Allison also likes the earliness of ‘Tango’ because his planting is so far north (right on the southern edge of the Ocala National Forest). ‘Tangos’ will come off the trees before the coldest months of winter. One challenge with the variety is it doesn’t color up well. He hopes being further north will provide the necessary chill hours to color the fruit in the November and December timeframe.
“The consumer wants something they can consume easily — something the kids in the backseat of the car can easily peel and eat,” Allison says. “Think about Florida fruit, which has much better internal quality, brix, and flavor when compared to California.
“If we can find the right varieties, the right fruit for consumer demand, and the right market window, we will have something special. That is why the FAST TRACK program to establish these varieties is so critical.”
Peter Chaires, Executive Director of the New Varieties Development & Management Corp. (NVDMC) says Allison is finding success with these high-value specialty varieties.
“Chuck is always current on the latest information on rootstocks and rootstock/scion combinations, as well as horticultural practices,” Chaires says. “He’s methodically innovative, which is a rare combination.
“Chuck also is registered to plant several of the most promising experimental FAST TRACK fresh citrus selections, made available through a cooperative program between NVDMC, UF/IFAS, and Florida Foundation Seed Producers Inc. If any of these selections prove commercially viable, he will be in a position for rapid expansion and early market penetration. Despite the many positive advances on the disease front, we have fewer growers every week with the resources to replant. It is tremendously beneficial to have growers like Chuck who are feeding supply while helping to identify the varieties that will help jumpstart Florida’s citrus recovery.”