How the Peach State is becoming a home for citrus

Since the beginning of the 20th century, average temperatures in the state have increased by about 1.44 degrees. Growing citrus in South Georgia can still be a risky endeavor due to harsh frosts can extinguish whole groves. But as levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to rise from human activity, experts say the likelihood of prolonged cold snaps is decreasing.

There are an estimated 473,000 commercial citrus trees in Georgia today, up from 4,700 a decade ago, thanks in part to experimentation by growers like Savelle.

“This is going to be bigger than we ever thought possible,” said Savelle, who also serves as president of the Georgia Citrus Association.

At the same time, the warming trend is causing problems for growers who produce some of the state’s most prized fruit crops, such as blueberries and its signature peaches, who have suffered a series of painful losses in recent years.

The differing fortunes of these diverse crops offer a glimpse of how a hotter future could reshape Georgia’s powerful agricultural industry.

“I’m sure people are looking south in Florida and they’re like, ‘Well, what are they growing?'” said Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist at the University of Georgia.

After retiring from a 34-year law enforcement career, Savelle moved to the farm where her husband Perry grew up. They explored several options: pomegranates, persimmons, even crayfish before finally settling on citrus.

Savelle said she chose citrus to keep herself busy in retirement. But what started out as a small business has grown rapidly, she said.

At JoNina Farm, the Savelles have 600 Satsuma, Page Mandarin, Georgia Honey and other species of trees on their 2-acre property where visitors can pick fruit. The couple also have an indoor nursery with 15,000 potted trees, including 100 varieties of oranges, kumquats, limes and grapefruits, which are sold to other growers who want to get into the business.

“We constructed this building last May and have already outgrown it,” Savelle said, gesturing toward her current greenhouse. The pair are banking on a citrus boom in Georgia and are building a second next door that will be five times larger, she said.

Warmer winters and deep frosts

But warmer winters, tempting citrus growers, have plagued growers like Brenda Starrett, who grows blueberries near Augusta, about 250 miles northeast of the Savelle farm.

After converting their pine farm into a certified organic blueberry operation, Starrett, her husband Don, and daughter Rhea have been growing berries on a two-acre property since 2016.

That Starretts harvested her first berry crop in 2019, joining a blueberry industry that is one of the state’s most valuable commodities and is worth an estimated $304 million a year, according to the latest UGA estimates.

BluStarr Farms, as their family-run business is called, got off to a great start with successful harvests in 2019 and 2020. But in each of the last two years, the Starretts have lost at least half their crop. The culprits were frost events in March and April that destroyed the plants’ fragile flowers and fruits.

While freezing temperatures dealt the fatal blows and may seem like the opposite of an impact from rising temperatures, the root of the Starretts’ problems can be traced months earlier.

Crops like blueberries, peaches, and apples require a certain number of “chill hours” spent in temperatures between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit to produce fruit in warmer weather.

Georgia winters warm faster than any other season, according to analysis by nonprofit organization Climate Central. And while most blueberry varieties grown in the state can still meet their refrigeration needs, rising temperatures can lead to other problems.

December 2021 was the second-warmest December on record in the state, with temperatures some 9.5 degrees above the 20th-century average. That early-season heat, along with a warm end of February and early March, confused the plants and prompted them to flower weeks earlier, the Starretts said.

As temperatures plummeted into the high teens on March 13, the family took turns driving their “frost kite” — a tractor-mounted device used to blow hot air at plants to prevent them from freezing — through the night the fields.

Despite this, they lost much of their harvest.

“It was a sad, sad feeling,” Brenda Starrett said. “After 12 hours (driving) we could see that the flowers were frozen.”

The Starretts were able to save their crops and save some of their fruit from another frost a month later, but many other Georgia farmers weren’t so lucky.

Dick Byne, who has been growing blueberries in nearby Waynesboro for 43 years, lost his entire crop to frost for the second year in a row.

“It’s never happened to me two years in a row,” he said.

Frost following unusually warm months 2017 and 2018 also staggered many blueberry growers, destroying an estimated 60% or more of the state’s crop. The combination of a warm winter followed by a deep freeze also wiped out about 80% of the state’s peach crop in 2017.

Zilfina Rubio Ames, assistant professor and small fruit specialist at UGA in Tifton, said the blueberry growers she works with are concerned about the changing climate. In addition, they face other threats to their economic viability.

“They also have to deal with high production costs, labor shortages and labor costs,” Ames said. “All of these things are very important to her.”

Adaptation to a warmer future

Both citrus and blueberry growers are working to prepare their respective industries for what may lie ahead.

As Georgia’s citrus growers remain optimistic about the future, there are potential pitfalls the industry hopes to avoid.

Florida, which ranks among the nation’s top citrus states along with California, has seen its industry devastated by the citrus greens, a bacterial disease carried by a tiny bug called the Asian citrus amphipod. Citrus canker, a separate disease that scars plants and their fruits with lesions, has also caused huge losses in Florida and was recently discovered in Georgia.

Some Florida growers have expressed interest in moving to or expanding in Georgia, Savelle said. As more decide to move north, Georgia growers are hoping to prevent disease.

In Savelle’s nursery, anyone entering the greenhouse must first pass through a closed-door chamber that uses a footbath, anti-cancer mist, and fans to prevent bugs and bacteria from hitchhiking into the greenhouse. The facility is also inspected monthly by the US Department of Agriculture and every two months by state regulators.

“We need to legislate to make sure what happened in Florida, of the industry being lost to disease, doesn’t happen here,” said Herb Young, the owner of Squeeze Citrus, a nearby South Georgia citrus farm.

Meanwhile, blueberry growers are also doing what they can to prepare for a hotter future.

Ames, the UGA small fruit specialist, said research is ongoing to understand how changing climate is affecting the plant’s natural cycles. University breeders are also trying to develop new varieties better suited to Georgia’s changing climate, ideally ones that require less cool hours and can withstand freezing temperatures.

“By doing the research now, we can help growers mitigate any challenges they will face from climate change,” Ames said.

Last month was the fourth warmest October globally on record, and experts say the coming months are likely to bring another round of hotter-than-normal temperatures to Georgia and much of the southeast. That’s because a third consecutive La Niña — a weather phenomenon fueled by Pacific Ocean temperatures — is looming on the horizon. La Nina typically brings drier, warmer conditions to Georgia.

This could mean trouble for some farmers again.

Still, farmers like the Starretts have high hopes that this will be the year when the weather cooperates.

“I think that’s part of the risk and excitement of farming,” Don Starrett said. “You know, can you dodge the bullet? Can you do something to save the harvest? And we will keep trying.”


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