Derek New’s Satsuma mandarin trees produced fruit for four of their seven or eight years of life at his farm in Baker.
Unfortunately, below-freezing weather killed each of his four Satsuma trees in 2016.
“Two nights at 10 degrees killed them,” said New, a retired firefighter who started his 50-acre New Farms in the middle of the Blackwater River State Forest almost a decade ago. “It wiped them all out. I’m disabled, so I was not able to keep them warm when we had the 10-degree weather.”
Also, his farm at the time did not have an irrigation system installed, meaning he could not spray the trees with water that would have frozen and protected them.
Today, New continues to grow other types of fruit, including pears, peaches, apples and blackberries, as well as cucumbers, okra and other vegetables.
While they might never come close to competing with the much warmer Central and South Florida counties in terms of production, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and neighboring counties are quite capable of growing certain varieties of citrus.
As New knows all too well, extreme cold is one of the biggest challenges to growing citrus in the Panhandle.
In Okaloosa, “We have a lot of families with backyard citrus throughout the county,” said Jennifer Bearden, agriculture agent at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Office in Crestview. “I’ve looked at trees in the Niceville area and Fort Walton Beach, and up here on the north end. Naval and blood oranges are the ones I’ve seen people be successful with. But they understand that in some years, the winter is too tough to grow them.”
While the extension office does not have estimates on the number of citrus trees in the local area, Bearden said she knows of a handful of local citrus growers who sell their fruit at farmers markets.
One of them, Wami Grove by Milton, is working to expand its grove of Satsuma mandarins in hopes of selling the fruit wholesale.
New’s farm is more than 300 miles from Alachua County, which is one of the northernmost counties in Florida's northern commercial citrus production area. Farther south are the Sunshine State’s largest citrus-producing counties of Polk, De Soto and Hendry.
Florida ranks first in the United States in the value of production of oranges and grapefruit, according to the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. During the state’s 2016-17 season, almost 437,000 acres of citrus were grown, producing about 78 million boxes of fruit. Ninety percent of that harvest was processed into juice and the rest was sold as fresh fruit.
For much of Florida, the grapefruit season typically runs from September through June, and the orange season typically runs from October through June, according to the Florida Department of Citrus. The start of those seasons might begin a little later in the local area, Bearden said.
In addition to being warmer than the Panhandle, Central Florida has loamy soil that is more suitable for citrus growing than the sandier and more clay-filled soil in the northern areas, said Greg Tomso, founder and director of the University of West Florida’s Community Garden in Pensacola.
“Because we’re a cooler climate, it’s important to find the appropriate type of rootstock to grow the citrus trees,” he said. “Most of the citrus trees we grow here are grafted” with parts of cold-hardy species.
Because they are better shielded from the extreme cold, Fort Walton Beach and other coastal areas are more suited to growing some varieties of oranges and grapefruit, Meyer lemons and other types of citrus, than Crestview and areas farther north, Bearden said.
For homeowners who are newcomers to growing citrus, Bearden advises that they plant their trees on the south side of their house or south of established trees, which serve as windbreaks against cold northerly winds, and to cover their trees when it temperatures dip to near freezing.
Tomso said there is a large and growing interest on the Panhandle in edible landscaping.
“People are hugely interested in growing local, and you can’t get more local than your backyard,” he said. “You can grow citrus in the Panhandle if you know what you’re doing.”
Tomso learned over time the best ways to grow a Meyer lemon tree, which he bought many years ago from a big-box store. He said planted the tree in full sun and initially “watered it like crazy” but fed it too much fertilizer.
“Now, I feed it once a year,” Tomso said. “I got 700 giant lemons on it last year. My lemons are the size of softballs.”
Fortunately, and unlike in many parts of Central and South Florida, no citrus trees in the local area have been found to be infected with deadly citrus greening or canker, Bearden said.
“I think (citrus canker) will get here if we don’t find a way to stop it,” she said.
In 2015, Cody English and his family planted the first 3 acres of Satsuma mandarin trees for their upstart Wami Grove, which is about 10 miles north of Milton and named after the nearby 10-acre Lake Wami that’s owned by English’s father.
The mandarins are seedless, easy to peel and a little bigger than a tennis ball, Cody English said.
“Hopefully, this year or next year we’ll have an additional 7 acres,” he said. “We’re starting out local and hope to spread out from there as our trees get bigger and produce more and more.”
While English has sold many of his mandarins and kumquats at farmers markets, he plans to have a U-pick operation at his grove and be able to start wholesale production in about 2020.
He said the U-pick operation would be part of the “agritourism” opportunities that already exist in the area, including a corn maze and the Santa Rosa Ranch, which offers hayrides, a petting zoo and other attractions.
The expanded, 10-acre Wami Grove will have about 1,000 mandarin trees and eventually could produce about 350,000 pounds of fruit each season, English said. He envisions partnering with a packing house in Marianna and selling and distributing his fruit around Santa Rosa County, neighboring counties and elsewhere.
Citrus trees grew abundantly in north Santa Rosa County until they were devastated by a freeze in the 1920s, English said. Afterward, many growers switched to growing peanuts and other crops, he said.
“Our rootstock is one of the most cold-hardy,” he said.
To protect against extremely cold air, Wami Grove uses low-volume sprinklers that mist each of its trees. The water becomes ice that insulates the graft union between the rootstock and the scion, or upper part of the combined tree.
Protecting against the scourge of citrus canker and greening will require the hand of God as well as new scientific breakthroughs, English indicated.
He said he’s putting a lot of hope and faith in the University of Florida for research into disease-resistant rootstock.
And, “We’re just hoping and praying for the grace of God so it doesn’t spread up to here,” English said.