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Could Georgia become the Citrus State? Growers are betting on it

Satsuma mandarins
Posted at 10:11 AM, Nov 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-24 14:12:25-05

STATESBORO, Ga. — In poetry, orange is the color of energy and vitality. And oranges often represent confidence, enthusiasm, joy.

On the grove of Joe Franklin, it’s more rooted.

"I know, when you eat them," Franklin said, "they do make you feel good!"

For Franklin, citrus is business and has been for a decade, since he first placed mandarin trees on his family farm.

“Most people thought I was crazy, planting citrus trees," he said. "They were like, ‘Those things grow in Florida!’”

Franklin lives in Statesboro, Georgia. No one in the South grows citrus this far north.

“It was peanuts here when I planted these trees," Franklin said of the family farm where he grew up. “It was a lot colder then," he said of his childhood years. "We had days here where, I think, the record low was eight degrees.”

Farmers across the country are confronting a changing climate. Northeastern growers face more intense rains. Southwestern growers battle increased drought. Forest fire season lasts two months longer. As for oranges, for decades they’ve been the domain of Florida, California, and to a tiny degree, Texas … until now.

“We don’t get the long period of deep freezes that we used to get," Franklin said. “These are not gonna survive that. But our climate has changed enough where we don’t get those anymore.”

Statesboro is nowhere near the Florida border. In fact, it’s closer to South Carolina. But to understand what’s going on there requires a visit to one state south.

On the grove of Ron Mahan, leaves are yellowing. Trees are struggling. And his Valencia oranges, still green for a few months, aren’t nearly as plentiful.

“We would produce 200-240 million boxes of oranges a year," Mahan said. "This year, we will produce, per the latest USDA forecast, only 47-48 million boxes.”

Mahan oversees Tamiami Citrus. In the buckle of the Citrus Belt, the big concern isn’t climate change. It’s greening, a disease spread by an insect that attacks orange trees and weakens them. Trees die on their own over time … or when an extreme event topples them, such as, a few years ago, Hurricane Irma.

Growers like Mahan look at greening and great storms as the same: factors they can’t control to which they must adapt.

"My partners and I have invested over $150 million in the groves," Mahan said. “Twenty years ago, you’d go out and kick the dirt and say, ‘Oh, it’s kind of dry,’ and flip on the irrigation. Now, we are in here every day, adjusting and managing what’s going on with the groves.”

To farm is to forge an uneasy alliance with an evolving environment.

Five years ago, Franklin pioneered the Georgia Citrus Association. This fall, the state known for peaches will hold nearly 400,000 trees of citrus. And while most Georgia growers use protective sprays to fight potential freezes, Franklin sees no need. In between rows of mandarins, he shows his newest endeavor, another fruit no one’s ever grown that far north in the South: grapefruit.

"They've got a lot of juice on them," Franklin said. "I did a lot on my own and did a lot of research on it. And I think my business turned out pretty good.”