Renewable Farming

This Florida family is growing into a highly profitable market niche

One of the most encouraging growers we’ve met recently is Matt Cruce, who’s expanding his family’s citrus grove in northern Florida near Madison. 

He’s launching this family-oriented venture at a time when Florida’s citrus production is dropping sharply from “Citrus Greening” disease and other economic forces. This winter, we eagerly ate through 60 pounds of Cruce Family Farm’s Shiranui mandarins, which have an exquisite sweet flavor and test just over 12 brix with a refractometer.

Matt Cruce hauls in loads of oranges

Matt’s citrus grove story offers solid ideas for growers of any ag commodity. We’ve summarized an interview with Matt this week:

Matt, what makes you confident to invest in citrus when almost three-fourths of Florida’s citrus production has been wiped out in the past 17 years by disease and high costs?

Well, citrus in North Florida and South Georgia is nothing new. Satsumas were grown here in the early 1900’s commercially, but got killed by freezes long before mirco-jet freeze protection was around.

But my whole life I have seen citrus trees planted in yards and old homesites here in North Florida and South Georgia. So if we can grow it by the front door, why can’t we grow it in the field?

If it was not for greening, we probably would have never taken the risk of planting any citrus. The cost for us northern growers to develop a grove is expensive. We are starting from scratch, and we need large wells to protect our small groves. So the tightening supply has increased citrus prices enough for us to believe that it was worth taking the risk of planting.

The colder climate in our area is a help in many ways. One of these ways is that the cooler weather starting in September helps the trees go dormant. And a dormant tree is much more cold-hardy then a non-dormant tree. The dormant trees also produce a more evenly timed bloom which is easier to manage. The cool temperatures also help the color break of citrus. Color break is when the fruit turns from green to orange in the fall. This cool weather makes the fruit a more vibrant orange. The other main advantage is that the researchers say that that most Psyllids die when the temperatures drop below 24 degrees.

What production advantages do you have over traditional citrus areas in Florida?

  • Better External color.
  • Higher internal quality because of no greening.
  • Cooler temperatures and lower humidity in fall.
  • We use less fertilizer because of good soils and no greening.

What citrus varieties do you produce?

 Our largest acreage is in Shiranui, a mandarin that’s very sweet and easy to peel.

  • Cara-Cara, which is red navel.
  • Glenn navel.
  • Tango, a mandarin that is one of the varieties that Wonderful citrus sells under their brand name Halos.
  • Bingo, a new mandarin that’s about two inches in diameter but a great piece of fruit.
  • Satsuma, a mandarin that’s very mild and easy to peel, with low acidity.

We invest a lot of time and money each year learning new things. But we’ve tried to avoid big mistakes, and get learning curves out of the way. Our first year we planted 10 acres. Now we’re at 85 acres. So instead of making an 85-acre mistake, we made a 10-acre mistake. That’s a lot cheaper.

What’s your biggest risk?

We have two big risks:

  • Citrus greening would be the first, though it’s not here yet. Greening is a horrible disease and no one has found a cure for it yet.
  • The second would be if our wells malfunction during an extreme cold weather event. We have mitigated some of the risk by having backup wells and generators.

[Editor’s note from citrus consultant Travis Murphy: “The Asian Citrus Psyllid is the culprit that carries the bacteria which causes greening. While feeding on young flush leaves, the bacteria is introduced into the phloem tissue, and the phloem tissue is plugged at the sieve tubes. When the phloem becomes plugged, the tree can’t feed the roots, so the roots die and the tree dies. Greening is also known as Huanglongbing (HLB).”]

Do you foliar feed your groves?

Yes, we do a pre-bloom and a post-bloom spray with soluble 20-20-20 and a micronutrient mix two to four times per year. That foliar feeding includes your product, WakeUP Advantage, which we get from citrus consultant Travis Murphy of Ft. Pierce, Florida.

We have to spray over 200 gallons of solution per acre for good coverage, so using WakeUP Advantage every time gets expensive in a hurry if we apply the label rate of a half-ounce per gallon. We use about one-third ounce per gallon, and still get good leaf coverage and absorption rates. 

What’s your long-term market strategy?

We’ve always been diverse in any business we’ve run. We believe that once all our trees mature, we will have three harvest months, starting mid-October and ending in mid-January.

As we grow, we’ll need to go commercially into grocery stores. But we’ll sell fundraising fruit and mail/gift orders directly to customers. Where and how consumers shop is always changing, so it’s important that we market in a way that helps fill their needs. 

Edditor’s note: Matt Cruce advised us that the farm’s website is under construction. “In the meantime, people can email us at crucefamilyfarms@gmail.com to get added to our email list.” 

Matt Cruce Family Farms orange grove and fresh-harvested Shiranui mandarins

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