Despite back-to-back cold winters that heavily damaged Alabama’s satsuma crop, farmers along Alabama’s Gulf Coast have plenty of the sweet, juicy oranges ripe for the picking.
Similar to mandarins, such as Cuties and Halos, have been successfully marketed on a wider scale, but potential also is high for satsumas, which can be grown in south Alabama, said horticulture expert James Miles of Mobile who works for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
“They are naturally sweet, delicious, and easy to peel,” he said. “Even a small child can peel a satsuma and eat it; and there’s almost no seeds. Outside of the Gulf Coast, most people don’t know what a satsuma is, much less that they’re grown in Alabama. For the crop to be really successful, we’ve got to expose it to more people.”
Alabama’s Farm-To-School Program is introducing satsumas to a new crop of consumers. Served in selected schools around the state, farmers like Jeremy Sessions and his cousin Adam Sessions of Grand Bay predict more popularity for the fruit through the program.
“Satsumas are so good that once you try them, you can’t wait to have another one,” Jeremy Sessions said smiling. “Or at least that’s sure what we’re hoping for.”
Primarily grown in Mobile, Baldwin and Houston counties, satsumas are sensitive to cold weather. They are generally protected by warm sea breezes, even when temperatures drop. Farmers also use irrigation systems to coat trees with water and form a layer of ice, which acts as insulation for the tender trees.
But several days of subfreezing temperatures in recent years proved to be too much for some plants, Miles said.
“South Alabama had a hard freeze in January 2013 when temperatures dropped to 19 F, and we had subfreezing temperatures for almost a week,” Miles said. “Even for growers with freeze protection in place, some trees broke from the weight of the ice, and some irrigation systems failed.”
Another hard freeze hit the region in the spring of 2015. It was a vulnerable time for the trees, and many didn’t survive or sustained heavy damage, Miles said.
“I’ve talked to some growers who’ve lost as much as 60 percent of their trees; others maybe as little as 30 percent,” he said. “Most all of them had some damage.”
Miles said he’s not sure how many acres the state still has in production, nor is it clear how many growers replaced dead trees. He said the number of acres in satsuma production could be as little as 250-300, down from 500 just a few years ago.
For farmers who replanted, it will take three years for new trees to bear fruit. Despite setbacks, growers like George Warden of Grand Bay said his harvest was good.
“We’ve been blessed,” said Warden, who has 2,000 trees spread across several fields on his farm. “Our crop turned out better than I thought it would, and the fruit is sweet.”
Warden was among the first farmers to grow satsumas commercially. He sells much of his crop through the Farm-To-School program, wholesale distributors and a good bit right off the farm. He planted 1,000 trees in 1990 and has added trees all along since then. He said he continues to learn something new every year.
“Just when you think you’ve got things figured out, they’ll surprise you,” he said about satsumas. “For example, my best crop this year is from fields near my pine trees. The pine trees apparently provided more protection from the cold than we thought.”