Most of us in Florida are not accustomed to thinking of Georgia as a citrus-producing state. Though there has long been a smattering of homeowner and niche-market Satsuma plantings, they were not what one would consider commercial enterprises. Things might be changing.
Over the past few years, citrus production meetings were held in the North Florida border counties of Jackson and Gadsden, as well as Perry, FL, and Auburn, AL. Each of these areas have been seriously exploring the possibility of commercial citrus production. Most recently, and certainly most notably, was a meeting in February of the newly formed Georgia Citrus Association (GCA). Though the association was just born in October, it now boasts 81 member companies and attracted 278 people to its inaugural meeting at the University of Georgia Tifton campus.
Membership includes nine companies from Florida (several farms straddle the border), and a couple from Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Meeting attendees represented most states in the Southeast.
Are You Serious?
While reading this article, some Florida farmers and nursery growers are likely questioning the sanity of such endeavors and are wondering what is driving interest in such a drastic shift in the perceived northern range of domestic citrus production. Conversations in Tifton indicated this newfound interest is based on several factors:
- Average temperatures in these regions not hitting the extreme lows that were once commonplac
- Better freeze protection techniques
- Interest in seizing upon declining production further south, and the hope that Asian citrus psyllid pressure will remain low in their areas
- Newly released varieties that appear to offer superior cold weather performance
- A hot market for soft citrus
Perhaps one of the most surprising gleanings from the Tifton meeting is that interest is not limited to border counties. Interest in Georgia appears to be statewide. Lindy Savelle, GCA President, informed us that she has had calls from interested growers in Northwest Georgia and counties west of Atlanta, well above the old “Gnat Line.”
To date, there has been widespread support from Florida in helping along the new northern production area. Ralph Howells spoke at the recent meeting about marketing. Travis Murphy spoke about production and freeze protection, and Billy Murphy and Phillip Rucks were there to answer questions related to nursery issues.
So, What Are They Planting?
Most of the interest remains focused on Satsuma and Satsuma-like varieties. There is somewhat of an established market for this type of soft citrus fruit and the cold hardiness of these varieties has been well documented (especially on trifoliate rootstocks). Dr. Wayne Hanna, University of Georgia, recently released several interesting varieties that have been exclusively licensed in Georgia to 1 Dog Ventures, the only all-citrus nursery in Georgia. Dr. Hanna, himself a citrus enthusiast, set out to reduce the seeds in selections that had shown tremendous resilience in the face of minimal care and cold temperatures.
- ‘Sweet Frost’ is an irradiated Changsha mandarin with two to three seeds per fruit. It has a Brix range of 11-12, it is very easy peel, well-colored, and matures (in GA) in November or December.
- ‘Grand Frost’ is an irradiated Ichang lemon. This is a large lemon (25 mm to 28 mm in circumference) with about 8 Brix and high juice content. It has nice, bright-yellow color and a maturity range of November through January.
- ‘Pink Frost’ is a red grapefruit, with characteristics not dissimilar to ‘Ruby Red,’ but with somewhat deeper color. It averages 30 mm to 35 mm in circumference, has Brix 8-11, and matures (in GA) November through March. It averages three seeds per fruit. This variety was identified in Georgia. It was a high seed fruit, with approximately 60 seeds before being irradiated.
Dr. Hanna noted that the non-irradiated versions of these varieties each took 0°F in the 1985 freeze with no irrigation. The trees were 10 years old at the time. Post-freeze, the lemon lost 18 inches of limbs and the tangerine lost 12 inches. The two- to four-year-old trees presently in the field survived 18°F with some young leaf discoloration during the 2014 freeze. Again, this was with no freeze protection. The varieties have not been (legitimately) introduced into Florida, but there may be interest in doing so.