John Neighbors never met a satsuma he didn’t like. Or, more precisely, he never met anyone who didn’t like a satsuma orange.”The only people that would prefer a satsuma are those who have tasted them,” Neighbors said with steadfast conviction. “If you taste one, you’re going to love it.”Neighbors should know. Even before the early varieties of satsuma oranges began to ripen back in early October, customers had been beating a path to his farm market just off Alabama 259 in Coosa County in search of the elusive but seductively sweet orange with the funny name.
“People find out I’ve got them; they’ll be here,” said Neighbors, a board member of the Alabama Farmers Federation. “They will come.”Neighbors’ confidence is easy to understand. More than 15 years after researchers planted 140 Owari satsuma trees at the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station (AAES) in Fairhope with an eye toward re-establishing the state’s citrus industry, Alabama’s great citrus experiment is bearing fruit — by the ton.No, you won’t be seeing Alabama-grown satsumas in the produce section of your local grocer anytime soon — that’s at least five years away. But there’s enough promise — and profit — in satsumas that Dr. Bob Ebel says the time is ripe for south Alabama farmers to explore the fruit as a new crop option.”If I was a farmer in the southern half of the state, I would seriously consider planting several acres of satsumas,” declared Ebel, an assistant horticulture professor at Auburn University and a member of the AAES satsuma research team. “Getting farmers interested in planting satsumas is one of our main goals now. We already know how and where we can market this stuff. People keep asking us where they can get satsumas, but we don’t have any. The main thing holding us back is there’s not enough acreage planted.”Ebel estimates there are 25 or fewer producers in the state, and only about 100 acres in production. Fortunately, the satsuma is also very prolific and even bears fruit the very first year.”A conservative estimate is that they produce 300 pounds of fruit per tree per year,” said Ebel. “If there are 100 trees per acre, we’re looking at 15 to 25 tons an acre. So a farmer doesn’t need a lot of land and the net profit is pretty substantial, much higher than what they’d get for row crops.”At Neighbors’ farm market in early November, the leafy satsuma trees were laden with bushels of bright-orange fruit, ripe for the picking. “This tree will probably have four bushels or close to 200 pounds,” Neighbors said as he pulled up a tangle of the fruit from one tree. “See how much fruit is on these trees? It’s unbelievable the weight that they will hold. They will bend over, but you will hardly ever see one break.”The demand, however, far exceeds supply. Neighbors says customers grab up the fruit almost as soon as it ripens. “The fruit itself is very desirable from the consumer standpoint,” said Ebel. “It’s easy to peel. It has excellent flavor. It’s virtually seedless, and from our surveys we know consumers want them.”Ebel’s partner in satsuma research, Dr. Bill Dozier of Auburn University, agrees that the satsuma’s future is a good one. “I think it’s very good,” he said. “The price is good, we’re getting new plantings put in, and they’re selling everything they can produce. They are wanting more than we are producing. So, yes, that’s a great situation.”The federally funded Farm To School Program, which provides school students with fresh fruit and vegetables from local farmers, has been the satsuma growers’ best customer for the past several years. Once every fall, the growers ship a half-million pounds of the fruit to schools throughout Alabama.”When we make a sale, there is a satsuma put on the plate of every student,” said Ebel. “So we have to deliver 500,000 pounds of fruit in a single day. That’s been one of the challenges for us. When we first started this program, we had farmers who had 75 percent of their fruit ending up on the ground. Now, they’re selling it all.”Not only that, but the students are reaping the benefits of the satsuma — Vitamins C and B and cancer-fighters like carotene and phenolyics.While the Farm to School program uses the bulk of Alabama’s satsuma crop, Brian Hardin, director of the Federation’s horticulture division, said the potential market beyond that is almost limitless.”Just think about all the possibilities out there — retail, mail order, exports,” said Hardin. “There is just so much potential! We’re not even touching the hem of the garment.”Still, it’s only a hint of how things could be. Or even how things used to be.In the early 20th Century, the satsuma flourished in Alabama, even to the point that one Mobile County town was named after the fruit. At its peak, in 1923, 18,000 acres of satsuma groves — nearly 1 million trees — stretched across southern Alabama from Mobile to Dothan. The fruit flourished in Baldwin and Mobile counties and was shipped in boxcar loads to markets as far as Chicago, Boston, Baltimore and New York.Then it happened — a series of unmerciful winter freezes that virtually wiped out an industry built on a fruit known for its ability to withstand temperatures as low as 17 degrees. It was such a devastating blow that most farmers simply gave up and turned to row crops and cattle. The AAES’s great citrus experiment wants to bring back those days. Already, researchers have found ways to better offer freeze protection, increase production, fertilize and ward off disease and insects.In the meantime, growers like John Neighbors seem to defy the odds by growing satsumas farther north than anyone, using high tunnels covered with 6-mil plastic and warmed by 50-gallon black drums heated by the sun.”I’ve always told John he’s kind of blazing the trail for us,” Ebel said of the 76-year-old, self-taught horticulturist.
Neighbors grows five varieties of satsuma, ranging from the LSU Early that ripens in early October all the way to the Owari that ripens in mid-November.”They would hold on the tree for about three weeks unless you harvest them,” Neighbors said of the Owari. “But I harvest mine just as quick as they ripen because I have customers waiting.”