FAIRHOPE, Ala.— Looking for healthy stocking stuffers or the ideal fruit for your holiday recipes? Try satsuma oranges, which are in bountiful supply this year and are making a comeback as a cash crop in Alabama's Gulf Coast region.
According to Ronnie McDaniel, superintendent of the Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center (GCREC) in Fairhope, commercial production of satsuma oranges is a long tradition in Mobile and Baldwin counties that is rebounding thanks in part to research at GCREC.
McDaniel explained that Baldwin and Mobile counties were a hub of satsuma production in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At one time Alabama producers shipped 700 train car loads of satsuma oranges each season to markets as far away as Chicago, New York and Boston. However, the industry was constantly challenged by freezes, disease and hurricanes.
One of the greatest enemies of the industry was cold weather, according to McDaniel. Several back-to-back severe winters with temperatures dipping as low as six degrees, combined with The Depression and the loss of Alabama's market to states that could provide consistent supplies of citrus fruits, finished off Alabama's commercial satsuma industry in the 1930s.
McDaniel, a native of the area who remembered the pleasure of eating fresh satsumas right off the tree, believed that the industry could be revived if only researchers could develop a freeze protection system. Working with horticulturists at Auburn University, McDaniel established a freeze protection study at GCREC, which is an outlying research unit of the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station (AAES).
"Satsumas can tolerate temperatures as low as 15 degrees if they have been properly hardened off -- if it's not a sudden freeze," said McDaniel. "But sudden freezes and temperatures that drop into the lower teens or single digits will kill them."
A satsuma test orchard consisting of 140 Owari satsuma trees was planted at the
GCREC in March 1990 and researchers tested several freeze protection systems. Results
indicate that the most effective protection is to coat the trees' trunks with ice. The system uses upright sprinklers located under the canopy of each tree that are turned on when a severe freeze is expected. The layer of ice that forms around the tree insulates their trunks at 32 degrees, which satsumas can tolerate.
"We turn the water on at about 34 degrees if we think it's going to get down into the teens, and run it continuously until temperatures get above 32 degrees again," said McDaniel. "Since the study began, the area has had temperatures as low as 15 degrees and the trees came through it well with the water protection method."
Torrie Revel, a Mobile County producer who began growing satsumas in 1985, agreed that cold protection is his greatest challenge. "We had some pretty bad freezes through the years," he said. "In 1989, it got down to eight degrees and stayed there. What made it so bad on the trees was that the weather had been warm until that time and the trees were not prepared for the cold."
Revel has been using the system tested at GCREC and also been doing his own on-farm studies. "My trees are in small plots scattered around. I've got some in pine thickets, others in the wide open, some with the water system, and some without. I'm convinced the water system is the way to go. We've used the smudge pots before, but with the cost of diesel now it's not feasible."
Because temperatures have never dropped below the teens during the 10 years of the study, McDaniel cautions that this frost protection system has not been tested under truly severe conditions. However, grapefruit and lemon trees at GCREC were saved by the ice blanket in the past 10 years. "They are much more cold susceptible than the satsumas, so if they can be protected this way, I think the satsumas may do fine," commented McDaniel.
Revel agreed that the grapefruit and lemon example increases his confidence in the water system and he plans to install the water system on as many of his trees as possible in the future.
Now that the freeze protection issue is becoming more manageable, the next step in revitalizing Alabama's satsuma industry is establishing a market for Alabama oranges. Most of the area's crop is sold locally in grocery stores and roadside markets, though McDaniel said Gulf Coast satsumas have been shipped as far away as Birmingham in recent years and they can occasionally be found in scattered outlets throughout the state.
According to Revel, educating people about the exceptional qualities of satsuma oranges is the first big step in establishing a market. "My customers come to me and say 'I want some more of those tangerines' and I have to explain to them that satsumas aren't tangerines," he said. "They are oranges that just peel easily. Older people who grew up when satsumas were more common do know the difference, but younger people don't always understand."
"To me they are the best citrus fruit," said McDaniel. "They've often been referred to as the 'kid glove' fruit because they peel so easy a small child can peel them without any help. They also are virtually seedless and they're very sweet and juicy. Once you've tried one, you'll know you just can't beat it."
Though the satsuma harvest began in late October, McDaniel said satsumas are just coming into full production for the year. "Right now is the peak time, from now until Christmas," he said. "We've had a little cold weather now and they are even sweeter if you get a little cold weather on them," he added.
And the supply should be plentiful during the coming month. McDaniel said yields have been outstanding this year, especially on mature trees.
"This is a niche for us," said McDaniel. "We can't compete with Florida and Texas on the naval and Hamlin oranges and other citrus crops, but we can fill this market."
The effort to support this crop will also continue through the AAES. Researchers will be conducting marketing studies and addressing pest and disease control problems in the near future. Another study to evaluate new varieties of satsumas for Alabama also will soon be established at GCREC.
Office of Ag Communications & Marketing
Auburn University College of Agriculture
Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station
3 Comer Hall, Auburn University
Auburn, AL 36849
334-844-4877 (PHONE) 334-844-5892 (FAX)