Can an old-timey crop bring prosperity to Jackson County?
A century ago, vast satsuma orange orchards stretched across Jackson County, with rows of trees extending as far as the eye could see. Every November, the trees would be laden with thousands of ripe satsumas ready for picking. The sweet, juicy and easy-to-peel fruit became a trademark of the county, garnering Jackson County a reputation as “the Satsuma Capital of the World.” Annual satsuma festivals celebrated nature’s bounties and attracted crowds of thousands in the late 1920s. Recently, a few farmers have ventured back into the world of citrus growing, emboldened by new freeze-protection technologies and the promise of greater profits.
The Satsuma Orange Revival New technologies enable farmers to revive a neglected North Florida crop By Tabitha Yang Originally published in the Aug/Sep issue of 850 Magazine
A century ago, vast satsuma orange orchards stretched across Jackson County, with rows of trees extending as far as the eye could see. Every November, the trees would be laden with thousands of ripe satsumas ready for picking. The sweet, juicy and easy-to-peel fruit became a trademark of the county, garnering Jackson County a reputation as “the Satsuma Capital of the World.” Annual satsuma festivals celebrated nature’s bounties and attracted crowds of thousands in the late 1920s.
All of that changed in 1935 when a severe freeze wiped out 3,000 acres of satsumas and devastated the local farmers. For a long time afterward, they stuck with crops they knew would grow well in North Florida’s odd mix of hot, humid summers and cool, sometimes freezing winters. Corn, soy beans, peanuts and cotton might not be as profitable as satsumas, but they were at least familiar and dependable.
Recently, however, a few farmers have ventured back into the world of citrus growing, emboldened by new freeze-protection technologies and the promise of greater profits.
A Different Kind of Orange
Satsuma oranges are members of the mandarin orange family. Nolan Daniels, a satsuma farmer in Jackson County, says the fruits are unusual in that they require a good cold snap in the winter in order to achieve maximum flavor and color.
“(The cold) actually makes them go ahead and ripen and taste sweeter,” he said.
Satsuma trees bear white, star-shaped blossoms in April, and the main harvest month for the fruit is November. Doug Mayo, the Jackson County Extension Office director, describes the flavor of the satsuma as “in between a navel and a tangerine.”
“It’s kind of got a unique flavor,” he said. “It’s sweeter than a navel but not quite as tangy as a tangerine, I guess. I’ve never had anybody that didn’t like them.”
The other distinguishing features of satsumas are that they are seedless and “zipper-skinned,” meaning the peel comes off easily. They resemble clementines and are sometimes confused with them, but the two are actually different varieties of citrus.
“They’re a lot like a tangerine, except you can just peel them without getting the juice all over you,” Daniels said. “You can hand that to a 5-year-old kid and he can eat it.”
The New Generation of Satsuma Farmers
For Mack Glass, Nolan Daniels and Herman Laramore, satsuma orange trees represent an investment of time, money and marketing efforts that they hope will be amply rewarded. Glass grew up in Jackson County and has been farming there for decades. In March 2002, after talking with citrus growers at conferences in other parts of the state and doing research on what would be involved, he decided to give satsumas a try, planting 6 acres of trees on his property.
“My reason for doing this is, the economics of our traditional crops are getting tighter and tighter, so I was trying to find some niche to make our farm viable,” Glass said, noting that he sells a two-fifths-of-a-bushel (or 17- to 18-pound) box of satsumas for $15.
A big reason why growing satsumas is attractive is the fact that they can be sold for a higher profit margin than traditional row crops. While the federal government’s farm programs heavily regulate and artificially suppress the price of staple crops such as corn and peanuts, satsumas and other fresh produce are not as regulated.
Mayo noted that it’s more difficult in general for farmers these days to make a living.
“We have larger acreage and fewer people,” he said. “It takes more acres to make a living than it used to, and that’s a long-term trend that we’ve seen — farming more acres using larger, more efficient equipment … A lot of the smaller family farms are being leased.”
One of the largest farms in Jackson County covers thousands of acres that, a generation ago, Mayo said, was split into 22 smaller farms. But growing satsumas, because of the higher profit margin, could help small farmers survive during challenging economic times.
A couple of years after Glass planted his satsuma trees, Daniels and Laramore, also local farmers, decided to join him. The three formed a co-op, the Cherokee Ranch of North Florida, so they could combine forces to pick, pack and market their fruit. So far, the arrangement has proved advantageous for the farmers and their families.
“If you’ve got an order for two semi (trailer) loads of satsumas, you might not have that many ready right now, but the co-op might,” Daniels said. “If I don’t have the fruit for (an order), then I can go to the co-op members, and we can fill it.”
He added that Glass and Laramore are just good people to be in business with.
“Look here, these are people that I’ve known … forever, I reckon, and (they’re) very easy to work with,” he said.
Today, the three farmers sell much of their crop through fundraisers for churches, civic clubs and schools. Over the past year, they have also supplied fruit for the local school lunch program, a convenient arrangement that turned out to be win-win for both the schools and the farmers. The schools got fresh local produce to feed their students, and the farmers identified another outlet for selling their oranges.
“When I came here in August (2009), I found out this was ‘the Satsuma Capital of the World’ at one time,” said Jack Noonan, general manager of Jackson County Food Services, which handles food for the public school system and Chipola Community College. “I got all our schools lined up to order them and we started serving them … It was favorably received, and of course the school board was happy because we were buying stuff from here instead of from China.”
The Satsuma Challenge
Selling oranges to the schools represented a victory for Glass and the other farmers in his co-op, who have had to put in a lot of hard work to grow, harvest and market their oranges. Peanuts, corn and other local crops can simply be carted off to the local supplier and sold all at once, but not so with the satsumas. Glass and his partners are continually looking for ways to inform people about their unique crop and generate interest in it.
“It’s a whole different system of marketing than most of our farmers are used to,” Mayo said. He is familiar with the Cherokee Co-op farmers and has observed the effort they have put into growing satsumas. “They’re selling direct or they’re selling wholesale, but they’re doing a lot of their own marketing,” he said. “You can’t just go to the local peanut-buying point or the cotton gin to sell your product. You’ve got to work at it.”
In addition to honing their marketing skills, the farmers have had to do a great deal of research to find out how to grow the trees — figuring out what fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to use — as well as investing in a freeze-protection irrigation system developed by researchers at the University of Florida. The system emits a steady spray of water that keeps trees from being damaged when temperatures drop below freezing in the winter months.
The trees themselves aren’t cheap. According to Glass, trees for commercial planting run about $10 each, which quickly adds up when one is planting several acres of them. And even obtaining the trees can be a challenge, since citrus nurseries have been devastated over the past five years by diseases such as citrus greening and citrus canker, and are now trying to build their stock of healthy trees back up.
Between the cost of the trees, the irrigation system and other expenses, Glass says he hasn’t yet recouped his investment. But with production volumes steadily increasing each year, he hopes that will happen soon. This past year, the Cherokee farmers shipped some of their satsumas off to brokers in Boston and Atlanta, Glass said, in addition to selling the fruit through the fundraising-sales and school lunch programs. Mayo thinks their efforts have attracted some attention from other farmers, citing as evidence a hefty turnout of 100 people at a recent training session on growing satsumas, as well as a group of farmers in Quincy who are ramping up to begin satsuma production.
“(The Cherokee farmers) are kind of the pioneers,” he said. “And others are watching to see how successful they’ll be.”
Jackson County may have been “the Satsuma Capital of the World” in the 1930s, but these days, it’s Japan that produces the most satsumas. The sweet and tangy oranges are also grown in cool, subtropical regions in Spain, central China, Korea, Turkey, along the Black Sea in Russia, South Africa and South America.
Horticultural historians say the satsuma mandarin orange probably originated in China, but records show they could be found growing in Japan 700 years ago. They were brought to the United States in 1876, and between 1908 and 1911, an estimated 1 million satsuma trees were shipped to this country from Japan and planted throughout the Gulf Coast states from Florida to Texas. The trees became known as “satsumas” when the wife of Gen. Van Valkenburg, a U.S. minister to Japan, shipped trees back to the United States from a province on Kyushu Island called Satsuma. The name stuck, although the province is now known as Kagoshima Prefecture.
Ever since then, the seedless, easy-to-peel fruits have remained popular, even among those in Central and South Florida who have access to other citrus varieties.
“I took some down to my relatives in Melbourne and they loved them,” said Jackson County Extension Office Director Doug Mayo. “They can buy all kinds of citrus in the area, and they liked what I brought them better.”
Satsumas are not only tasty, they’re a good source of dietary fiber and an excellent source of vitamin C, according to ProduceOasis.com. One satsuma contains approximately 50 calories and provides 110 percent of the recommended daily dose of vitamin C. The Produce Oasis website recommends selecting satsumas that are slightly soft but heavy for their size — good indicators that the fruit is fresh, sweet and juicy. Harder fruits tend to be more tart, as they have not been hanging on the tree long enough to sufficiently ripen.