Citrus growers keep going despite weather, market setbacks

(10/31/19) BELLE CHASSE, La. — Louisiana citrus is coming in, and the crop is good, according to two Plaquemines Parish producers.

Joseph Ranatza Jr., owner of Star Nursery in Plaquemines Parish, said he started picking on Oct. 7, and it looks like he’s going to have a good crop this year.

“My season is going very well this year versus last year,” he said. “Last year, the grocery stores bought a lot of foreign fruit, and that really hurt us.”

It’s hard for Louisiana growers to compete with foreign producers, who have lower labor costs and less restrictions, he said.

“They can buy these clementine mandarins from Chile, Peru and Morocco, where labor is a lot cheaper, and call them ‘cuties’ and make it hard for us to compete,” Ranatza said.

He said his answer to the “cuties” are his Cajun Babies, which are smaller-sized satsumas.

Ranatza’s main crop is satsumas, but he also has Louisiana navel oranges, lemons, Louisiana sweet oranges, grapefruit and sunburst mandarins.

The size of Ranatza’s operation allows him to contract with grocery stores like Walmart and Winn-Dixie, which gives him the opportunity to sell in large quantities and not have to depend on roadside sales as many smaller growers do.

Growers in the parish still have a problem with greening disease and citrus canker, but that’s just something they have learned to live with, he said.

“With the greening disease, the trees will slowly die and there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said.

“Citrus canker is a highly contagious bacterial disease that causes surface lesions on the fruit, leaves and stems of susceptible citrus. Satsumas are somewhat resistant to canker,” said LSU AgCenter agent Joe Willis. “Citrus greening is a systemic bacterial disease that all citrus is susceptible to but is not widespread in Louisiana. It is vectored by the Asian citrus psyllid. These two diseases are the reason for the quarantines on movement of non-certified citrus from several Louisiana parishes.”

Ben Becnel, another local grower, said he’s also having a good crop, but he is having problems with some of his trees only bearing fruit every other year.

“I am a fifth-generation citrus grower,” he said. “Both of my grandfathers were farmers also.”

In addition to selling at his roadside stand, Becnel also ships to a number of areas including Baton Rouge, Westwego, Atlanta and Indiana.

“The drought did cause me some problems this year,” he said. “It has really been dry, and we don’t have irrigation.”

Since the freezes back in 1989, Becnel said many of his trees only bare every other year now.

“When it gets down to 25 degrees for five hours the fruit will freeze,” he said. “Then you have about five days before it begins to sour.”

Last year, his navels were so big he was only packing 24 in a 40-pound box. But this year, with the heat and the drought, they didn’t get as big, he said.

In an effort to help the drought-stricken trees, he installed an irrigation system, but coyotes came in and destroyed his drip tape.

Becnel said the drought situation pretty much affects all the fruit the same. He has a decent crop, but it’s an off year when compared to last year.

Becnel also grows tomatoes, broccoli, okra and a few other vegetables on his farm just south of Belle Chasse.

“At one time there were 560 citrus growers in the parish,” Ranatza said. “Now there may be 20 total.”

“Louisiana citrus is still an important part of the state’s agriculture economy,” Willis said. “The remaining growers produce excellent quality fruit that I encourage everyone to ask for and buy. Buying local is a great way to support our state and keep our citrus industry alive.”

Two men looking at a satsuma.JPG thumbnail

LSU AgCenter agent Joe Willis discusses the size of Cajun Babies satsumas with Joseph Ranatza Jr., owner of Star Nursery in Plaquemines Parish. Ranatza said the crop is good. He just needs citrus lovers to go to the grocery store and buy local fruit. Photo by Johnny Morgan/LSU AgCenter

Two men sampling fruit in a citrus grove.JPG thumbnail

Ben Becnel shares a sample of his Louisiana navel oranges with LSU AgCenter agent Joe Willis in his Plaquemines Parish grove. Becnel said he’s already selling satsumas and expects to have navels, lemons and kumquats soon. Photo by Johnny Morgan/LSU AgCenter

Man looking at satsumas being washed in his packing shed.JPG thumbnail

Joseph Ranatza Jr., owner of Star Nursery in Plaquemines Parish, checks satsumas as they are being washed and prepared to be packed. Photo by Johnny Morgan/LSU AgCenter

10/31/2019 1:49:26 PM
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