Photography by Scott Bryant/Statesboro Herald
On a fishing trip to Louisiana in 2009, Bulloch County native Joe Franklin spied a road-side fruit stand with small oranges that looked similar to tangerines. He bought a bag and, after eating one, was immediately impressed with how easy they were to peel and the sweetness and juiciness of the orange. After arriving back home, Franklin researched the citrus fruit and found it was a variety of mandarin orange known as Satsuma.
Not happy with the taste of commercially available fruit in general, Franklin started to form an idea about raising Satsumas on his own farm. The retired owner of Franklin’s Restaurant, a home-style favorite locale for over 50 years, had purchased 97 acres from the estate of former State Senator Joe Kennedy off of U.S. Highway 301 South. By the time spring arrived in 2010, Franklin had an order placed with Star Nursery of Belle Chasse, Louisiana, for 200 “Brown Select” Satsuma trees. He immediately placed 15 acres of the Franklin Farm into cultivating an orchard of oranges.
While researching satsumas, Franklin found that the fruit grew very well in Alabama and Louisiana, generally in the higher subtropical zones of the U.S. It is believed the Satsuma arrived in the U.S. in 1878 when the wife of the U.S. Minister to Japan, General Van Valkenberg, was presented trees as a gift. Between 1908 and 1911 over one million trees were imported from Japan and planted throughout the Gulf Coast states.
Due to a combination of disease and devastating freezes, thousands of acres of the Satsuma were eradicated from the Gulf Coast region by the 1930s.
Today, producers in the Gulf Coast states from Alabama to Texas are rediscovering the sweet fruit and have new orchards under production. In 2013, Franklin added another 800 Satsuma trees.
Franklin Farms grows two main varieties of Satsumas: “Owari” and “Brown Select.” In addition, Franklin now has three greenhouses in which he cultivates seedlings and tries out other varieties of citrus fruits. He even has a blooming mango tree.
It takes a Satsuma tree three to five years to produce a marketable fruit. This is Franklin’s first year of producing the fruit in large quantity. Friends and family help him with harvesting, washing, and packing the oranges into 20 lb. boxes or 5 lb. bags. The harvest season runs from October to December. Franklin’s last harvest this year was on December 4th. The fruit can be stored two to three weeks under refrigeration. Not many of Franklin’s oranges were stored for any length of time. Over one ton was delivered to the Bulloch County School System for the lunch program. Oranges were also sold at L&D Produce, the Main Street Farmers Market, and Anderson’s General Store. Franklin produced six tons total this year.
After the fruit is harvested, Franklin spends the rest of the year tending the trees, cutting grass in the orchard, applying fertilizer and pruning. In April, the trees will blossom again and Franklin will call local bee keeper Bobby Colson to bring his apiary to the orchard to pollenate the trees. Colson says the orange blossom honey from Franklin’s trees is some of the best he’s ever had.
In the future, Franklin hopes to continue growing Satsumas, with a plan to have 30 acres total under cultivation. He wants to one day see his Satsumas in the produce section of grocery stores. For right now, he’s planning on planting another ten acres of Satsumas on a field adjacent to Hwy 301 in the spring of 2016. He’ll also be building a fruit stand nearby to market his home grown Satsumas and to attract the attention of passersby. Soon, those looking for the flavor of sunshine and honey bees, in locally grown and harvested, sweet, juicy Satsumas will be able to find them right here – on the side of the road at Franklin’s.