– Undercover in the Florida sunshine – a fresh take on fresh citrus –
There’s only one positive side to the devastation brought to the citrus industry by citrus greening disease: the spirit of innovation that has been ignited in growers, researchers, entrepreneurs and others.
FFVA producer member Jerry Mixon, president of KLM Farms is among those who demonstrate that experience. Well-known in Florida agriculture for his blueberry background, Mixon has been focusing on citrus and embarked on a new journey in 2014.
His goal was to produce a reliable crop of fresh citrus that could compete with anyone in the world in spite of the threat of greening. That’s when the spirit of innovation kicked in.
“After researching ways that had been proposed to control the effects of the disease, and more importantly seeing firsthand the effects it had on my own groves in terms of yield and quality, I decided to focus on the work that Dr. Arnold Schuman was doing,” Mixon said. Schumann and others at the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred are working on citrus undercover production systems — CUPS — where fresh citrus is grown under cloth structures.
Growing citrus under cover was first explored in Japan a little over 10 years ago. By growing mandarin oranges in high-tech greenhouses, the Japanese citrus producers could control inputs, temperature, light, water and more in order to grow beautiful, blemish-free fruit. Florida producers looked into the idea but shelved it for economic reasons at the time.
But now, Mixon and a handful of other growers think the idea’s time has come. “My familiarity with this type of structure from my blueberry life made the thought less ‘crazy,’ ” Mixon said.
As the idea to actually commit to a project using the CUPS method took root, Mixon said financial considerations also began to take form. He decided that the idea could work if KLM could produce the quantity and quality of fresh citrus that was being projected.
Mixon customized his CUPS plan. Instead of growing young trees in pots, as the UF/IFAS researchers had done, he planted in the ground. “I felt there were enough unknowns growing fresh citrus under insect cloth that I did not want to introduce yet another set of variables.” He also chose to plant fewer trees per acre than the researchers did — 360 per acre versus the 800-plus planted by Schumann’s team.
KLM moved forward with a trial of 20 acres in a grove Mixon bought in May 2015. By December, the pole structure was in place, and Mixon now is installing the insect cloth. The projected planting date is in October. He’ll plant W-Murcott and Sugar Belle varieties that he selected for quality, taste, seed count and popularity with consumers.
The grove has both an electric well and a diesel well. The electric well will be used for pulse irrigating through a microjet system and the diesel for protecting the trees from cold, also through the microjet system.
The first harvest could come as early as 2019.
“My goal is to produce fresh citrus that will compete with any production area of the world,” Mixon said. “I believe with the varietal research that UF researchers Fred Gmitter and Jude Grosser are conducting that qualities such as easy peel, sugar-to-acid ratio and seed count, combined with the work on the CUPS method that Dr. Schumann is conducting, will be a reality and Florida, and we will have fresh citrus that is highly sought after from consumers – even with greening in our state.”