As rising temps reshape Georgia’s fruit industry, citrus takes root

South Georgia farmers try satsumas and other fruit as temperatures warm

Thomas County, Ga. — Off a red dirt road near the town of Ochlocknee 30 miles north of the Florida border, the trees on Lindy Savelle’s farm are heavy with fruit on a cloudless, late October day.

The harvest is still weeks away, but the skin on her satsumas — an easy-peeling variety of mandarin orange — have begun their transition from green to bright orange, coaxed on by the cooler fall temperatures.

In this part of rural South Georgia, bales of white cotton, towering pecan trees and fields of peanuts have long been common sights.

But another crop has grown in popularity lately: Citrus.

Farmers and experts say several variables are driving the increase, but among the biggest factors is that Georgia is getting hotter.

Average temperatures in the state have risen by roughly 1.44 degrees since the start of the 20th century. Growing citrus in south Georgia can still be a risky proposition, as hard freezes can wipe out entire groves. But as concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to rise from human activity, experts say the odds of lengthy cold snaps are decreasing.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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

“This is becoming bigger than we ever thought it would,” said Savelle, who also serves as president of the Georgia Citrus Association.

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

The diverging fortunes of these different crops offer a glimpse into how a hotter future could reshape Georgia’s powerhouse agriculture industry.

“I’m sure folks are looking south into Florida and seeing, ‘Well, what do they grow?’” said Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist at the University of Georgia.

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

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

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

At JoNina Farm, the Savelles have 600 satsuma, Page Mandarin, Georgia Honey and other species of trees spread across their five-acre plot, where visitors can pick fruit. The couple also has an indoor nursery with 15,000 potted trees, including 100 varieties of oranges, kumquats, limes, and grapefruits, which are sold to other growers looking to enter the business.

“We put this building in last May and we’ve already outgrown it,” Savelle said, pointing to their current greenhouse. The couple is banking on a Georgia citrus boom, building a second one next door that will be five times larger, she said.

Warmer winters and deep freezes

But warmer winters that are tempting citrus growers have bedeviled farmers like Brenda Starrett, who grows blueberries near Augusta, some 250 miles northeast of the Savelle farm.

After converting their pine tree farm into a certified organic blueberry operation, Starrett, her husband, Don, and daughter, Rhea, have grown berries on a seven-acre plot since 2016.

The Starretts harvested their first berry crop in 2019 and joined a blueberry industry that represents one of the state’s most valuable commodities, worth an estimated $304 million annually according to the most recent estimates from UGA.

BluStarr Farms, as their family-owned and operated venture is known, got off to a good start with successful harvests in 2019 and 2020. But in each of the last two years, the Starretts have lost at least half of their crop. The culprits have been freeze events in March and April that destroyed the plants’ fragile flowers and fruit.

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

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

Winters in Georgia are warming faster than any other season, according to analysis by the nonprofit organization Climate Central. And while most blueberry varieties grown in the state are still able to meet their chilling requirements, rising temperatures can lead to other problems.

December 2021 was the second-hottest December on record in the state, with temperatures roughly 9.5 degrees above the 20th century average. That early season heat, along with a warm late February and early March, confused the plants, pushing them to bloom weeks early, the Starretts said.

When temperatures dipped into the high teens on March 13, the family took turns driving their “frost dragon” — a tractor-mounted contraption used to blow hot air on the plants to prevent freezing — through the fields all night long.

Still, they lost much of their crop.

“It was a sad, sad feeling,” Brenda Starrett said. “After 12 hours (of driving), we could tell the blooms were frozen.”

The Starretts were able to salvage their harvest and save some of their fruit from another freeze 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 in the freezes for the second straight year.

“I’ve never had it happen two years in a row,” he said.

Credit: Drew Kann

Credit: Drew Kann

Freezes that followed abnormally warm months in 2017 and 2018 also left many blueberry growers reeling, 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 roughly 80% of the state’s peach crop in 2017.

Zilfina Rubio Ames, an assistant professor and small fruit specialist at UGA based in Tifton, said the blueberry growers she works with are concerned about the shifting climate. On top of that, they are facing other threats to their economic viability.

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

Adapting 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 bullish about the future, there are potential pitfalls that the industry is hoping to avoid.

Florida, which remains among the country’s top citrus states along with California, has seen its industry devastated by citrus greening, a bacterial disease transmitted by a tiny bug called the Asian citrus psyllid. Citrus canker, a separate disease that leaves plants and their fruit scarred with lesions, has also led to huge losses in Florida, and was recently detected in Georgia.

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

At Savelle’s nursery, anyone entering must first pass through a closed-door chamber, where a foot bath, an anti-canker mist and fans are used to keep hitchhiking insects and bacteria from entering the greenhouse. The facility is also inspected monthly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and every other month by state regulators.

“We’ve got to get regulations in place to make sure that what’s happened in Florida, them losing the industry to disease, doesn’t happen here,” said Herb Young, the owner of Squeeze Citrus, a nearby South Georgia citrus farm.

Blueberry growers, meanwhile, are also doing what they can to prepare for a hotter future.

Credit: Drew Kann

Credit: Drew Kann

Ames, the UGA small fruit specialist, said research is ongoing to understand how the shifting climate is affecting the plant’s natural cycles. University breeders are also looking at developing new varieties that are better suited to Georgia’s changing climate, ideally those that need fewer chill hours and can withstand freezing temperatures.

“By doing the research now, we can help the growers mitigate all the challenges that they are going to face with climate change,” Ames said.

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

That could once again spell trouble for some farmers.

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

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


A note of disclosure

This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at ajc.com/donate/climate/