A once popular crop few know was ever popular in the Wiregrass is making quite a comeback. Here comes the satsuma!
One might be excused for thinking satsumas are new to the area, but nothing could be farther from the truth. "We're actually bringing back an old crop from the late 1800s until about 1952," said Dallas Hartzog, former peanut specialist at Auburn's Wiregrass Experiment Station in Headland and now a satsuma grower. "There are numerous newspaper accounts of satsumas being shipped from this part of the world up north."
Satsumas, Hartzog said, once ranged from Texas to the Florida Panhandle, southern Alabama and into Georgia. Then came a few years of bad weather. While the fruit will weather temperatures to about 23 degrees, single digit winters in the 1930s and 1940s "gradually made it unprofitable to grow satsumas in this part of the world."
While the strongly resemble tangerines, satsumas are actually members of the mandarin orange family. They're sweet, seedless and easy to peel. The oldest tree on the Hartzog farm is 13, and with harvest underway, "We'll be picking about 500-600 per tree."
The fruit was developed in the tropics, where the trees are able to stand a lot of wind and weight, Hartzog said. Young trees are not allowed to produce until they, although they are able to. The fruit is removed quickly from trees three and younger. "We want the tree to grow up so it will be big enough to support a load of fruit of around 300 pounds." One nine-year-old tree, he said, yielded 444 pounds.
To help during cold weather, each tree has a water supply. "When you freeze water, you actually generate heat," Hartzog said. "Each pint averages 142 b.t.u.s of heat energy. Plus, we use 144-inch feeder lines which take advantage of the geothermal energy in well water."
Hartzog said the farm's annual sale is set for this Saturday. "The first year we harvested was in '07, and we sold some to the school system," Hartzog said. "As it turned out, we had to harvest fruit on Thanksgiving Day." The family boxed the satsumas up, getting through about 10 p.m. Hartzog left the following morning at 2:30, headed to Fairhope to run the fruit through the grader. "It was the only time frame allocated to us. We left what we sold and came back."
The next morning, they were up at four and getting the fruit ready for the farm sale. "We probably didn't lose more than $10 a box that year," Hartzog said. "We've learned the game over the years. We've developed a tremendously loyal customer base. They come from Andalusia, Opp, Panama City, Seale, Pittsview, Colquitt, Cutthbert, Blakeley."
And when Hartzog says "they come"... he means it. While the sale opens at 6 a.m., customers get there early... really early. There have been so many, it's a common occurrence for the road to be blocked.
"But, we have a very efficient method of loading," Hartzog said. The harvested satsumas are put into boxes on trailers in the year. Twelve-to-15 people are on hand to carry the boxes to cars. "You don't even have to get out of your vehicle."
The defining characteristic of the satsuma operation, Hartzog said, is it's family farm nature. "Even the grandchildren are helping. We enjoy what we do. As long as customers keep coming back, we're going to keep doing it."
And they'll be doing it Saturday. The farm is located at 1633 Otis Buie Rd., Webb, just off the Webb-Kinsey Road, in the Mt. Ararat community. Remember... GET THERE EARLY!