There’s more than one way to peel an orange, and more than one way to sell satsumas.So when Alabama’s satsuma growers were told that they wouldn’t be able to squeeze out a profit with juice, they began looking for a better way to sell their fruit.The answer, many believe, could be a packaging plant — not the processing plant many had envisioned — that would sort, grade, label and box or bag the fruit for the fast-growing fresh market.The change in plans came about as the result of a feasibility study to determine the potential value of a cooperative processing plant. The $31,500 study commissioned by the Satsuma Steering Committee of the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Horticulture Division, was part of a larger Value-Added Producer Grant issued by the United States Department of Agriculture.But the results of the study were not what growers expected. In its executive summary of the study, a processing facility to turn the fruit into juice or concentrate was called “very risky” due to the lack of volume needed and other factors.That was the bad news. The good news came near the end of that summary which concluded “a satsuma supply and marketing cooperative might be an attractive option for the industry.””It was almost an anecdote in the report,” said Monte Nesbitt, senior research associate with Auburn University’s Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center in Fairhope. “But that made a lot of sense to me.”Even before the study was completed, the market’s landscape had changed, largely because of an unexpected deal with C.H. Robinson Worldwide (CHRW), one of North America’s largest trucking companies. Through that agreement, much of last season’s 350,000-pound harvest was shipped in 3-pound bags to Wal-Mart stores throughout the Southeast region.”They fell in our lap,” said Nesbitt. “They said, ‘We can sell all the fruit you can provide.’ But we can’t provide it because we don’t have the infrastructure. They would like to see us get to 1 million pounds as soon as possible.”Right now, however, Nesbitt estimates Alabama’s 40 growers — most of whom are mom-and-pop operations that sell from roadside stands — are producing only about 390 tons, or 780,000 pounds. But in less than a decade, the yield could be as much as 4.6 million pounds, or more than double the state’s peach output.”You can’t tease a big chain store in New Jersey with 10,000 pounds of fruit,” said Nesbitt. “They’re not going to get interested in a product that you can’t continue to deliver to them. And that’s where we are: Can we become ‘big boys’ in providing the product and stream it out? We’re not there yet with the growing capacity of our trees (satsuma trees bear more fruit the older they get), and we’re not there yet with infrastructure. It’s chicken-and-egg: we could sell more fruit if we had the infrastructure, but how do we get the infrastructure until we sell the fruit?”The “infrastructure” that satsuma growers are hoping for would be an 80-by-80 building that would house graders, packers and cold storage, capable of handling such large demand.”The way we operated last year, we stored them on trucks and then moved them out,” said Brian Ladnier of Grand Bay, who has 1,058 trees planted and has propagated as many 3,000 more in a year. “The trouble we ran into last year with cold storage was being able to rotate the product — first in, first out kind of deal. You’d have to empty an entire truck and to do that, you need the right equipment like a forklift and pallet jack. It’s a big deal to empty a truck.”Ladnier says the facility may only be needed during harvest (early November through New Year’s), and could possibly be shared with another commodity such as peaches. “That seems to be the way we are leaning,” said Ladnier. “People in the industry will eventually want their own facility, but we need something for the next two to three, maybe next five years, to get us to that point.”Other hurdles the growers face include developing a more uniformly sized product (the size of the satsuma fruit can vary widely on a single tree). “There has to be some understanding that not everything that grows on the tree is going to be saleable,” said Nesbitt.Overcoming a resistance by backyard growers could also be a challenge. “A lot of people have established local markets, and they’re not ready to give that up and go into a cooperative deal where they have to hustle and pick fruit in a short amount of time,” said Nesbitt. “… So we have people who are not evolving yet in that direction but I think they will be forced to as more and more competition and more and more trees get into production.”Too, Nesbitt says growers in Mobile and Baldwin counties are separated by more than interstate — there’s also a polarization that could make choosing a location for a packing facility difficult.”That’s a challenge for growers, and I don’t know why it is a challenge. We don’t have all our industry up here in the same immediate area. There’s a cluster of growers in Grand Bay and there’s some in Baldwin County,” Nesbitt said. “Maybe this will be a good enough opportunity that economics will bring them together.”It is, Nesbitt stressed, the one golden opportunity that was almost missed in the feasibility study. He just hopes the growers will work together to get a packaging facility in time for the 2010 harvest, adding that C.H. Robinson Worldwide is already preparing marketing material to pitch this year’s crop to Wal-Mart.”They’ve come along at the right time, and if we are able to show growth, they are going to stay interested,” Nesbitt said. “If we get kind of wishy washy and can’t continue to show increase in product, I think they’ll lose interest. So, what does Wal-Mart want? They’re going to want more and more fruit. So, it’s all right there if we can have a facility and the capability to get it out. And that means the growers will have to work together. We don’t have a single grower who can meet this demand. For this to work, everybody will have to work together.”For more information about this project, contact Monte Nesbitt at (251) 990-8417.
FRESH VISION: Satsuma Study Shifts Focus To Fresh-Market Appeal