Taters No More! This Florida Farm is Now Growing Sweet on Citrus

All farms evolve over time as growers try new crops that fit their ground and economic situation. Some crops are a hit and others are not. That’s why small-scale trials are important to find winners or weed out losers before going into new, large-scale plantings.

For Hastings, FL-based Tater Farms, fresh citrus has made the cut and is in the early phases of plantings that will eventually grow to 160 acres. The first 40 acres were planted on the farm in summer 2018 and another 40 acres were planted in 2019.

The farm has seen a number of changes since husband-and-wife team Frank and Polly Johns began working the ground there in the mid-’70s. The operation was founded on potatoes and cabbage. But, for various reasons, both crops were phased out — cabbage in 2005 and potatoes in 2011.

In 2005, turfgrass was planted on the farm for the first time. Sod evolved as the main crop over the years and has grown to 2,600 acres of improved grasses (Zoysia, Saint Augustine, and Bermuda) and about 1,500 acres of Bahia. The farm also has a commercial and residential grass installation service.

Polly kept the farming tradition going strong after Frank passed away in 2014. Eric Hjort came to work for Tater Farms in 2006 as General Manager to help with the emerging turfgrass operations and the transition of generations on the family farm.

“Frank felt like we needed somebody to help with the transition between him and our boys,” Polly says. “Eric has provided steady leadership all along.”

Sons Christopher and Carleton Johns have both worked on the farm. Christopher caught the lawyering bug and has since moved on to work as an attorney. Carleton came back to work on the farm in 2002 after a stint working in the construction business.

Giving Citrus a Go

While everyone is excited about the new citrus planting on Tater Farms, it occurred almost by accident.

“When we got out of potatoes, we knew that at some point we would want to continue in the food business segment,” Hjort says. “We didn’t want to be one dimensional with just sod. So, we put in trial plantings of blackberries, blueberries, and peaches. We have some salt [intrusion] issues in this area, and we learned quickly this was going to cause problems with blackberries and blueberries. The peaches did really well, but they are so labor intensive, we didn’t want to go down that road.”

They also planted an acre of citrus with five different varieties for evaluation. Hjort says it was almost an afterthought and a place for the family and farm employees to enjoy the fruit it produced.

“I don’t think we went into this thinking that we would be growing citrus,” he says. “We kind of looked at it as an expensive hobby; but the trees did very well with little inputs.”

But the notion of citrus got more serious when Hjort was visiting with Quentin Roe during a Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association meeting in 2017. The Roe family has a long history in Florida citrus production, including their tangerine groves and W.G. Roe & Sons packing business in Winter Haven.

“Quentin got all excited when I told him about how good our trees looked,” Hjort says. “Later, we went down and visited their operation and started getting more and more interested in citrus. The Roes felt like we might have some advantage when it comes to greening exposure, because we are in an area where there really is not much citrus.”

Trees Growing Fast

Tater Farms entered into an agreement to grow for W.G. Roe & Sons. They have planted the Roe’s proprietary variety ‘Juicy Crunch’ tangerine. The variety is easy-peel and virtually seedless, and more importantly, sweet and tasty.

“They sent us a box of the ‘Juicy Crunch’ last season, and they were so good,” Polly says. “That’s when we started to get really excited about growing them.”

The variety is planted on US-942 rootstock at a density of 254 trees per acre on a 9-feet by 19-feet spacing. The variety was selected because fruit comes off in December and early January, making it less likely to be impacted cold snaps in the heart of winter.

Carleton is managing the citrus production and says everyone has been surprised and pleased with how fast the trees are growing. They anticipate a commercial harvest in 2021 on the first planted citrus. With 80 acres already in the ground, they plan to plant the remaining 80 acres in 2021 and apply learnings on what to do or not to do from the original plantings.

Carleton attributes much of the fast growth to the nutrient program being applied to the citrus. Four slow-release fertilizer applications are made throughout the year roughly during February, May, September, and little over the winter. When the trees were planted, slow-release fertilizer was placed in the holes. Those applications are supplemented by liquid fertigation during the spring and fall.

“We will run the liquid fertilizer a few times per week with irrigation,” Carleton says.

The soil is a sandy loam, boosted by an application of compost at planting.

“We top-dressed the compost at 4 tons per acre,” Hjort says. “We placed the compost right where the trees would be growing and incorporated it lightly with a rototiller. The compost had mycorrhizae and other soil microbes added to it. It has worked very well.”

Because the citrus trees are planted on old turfgrass ground, the groves have a unique irrigation combination — drip, microjets, and drain tile underneath. The drip is used for irrigation and fertigation, microjets are in place for cold protection, and the drain tile is the legacy of the sod farm.

“We are not using the drain tile for irrigation on the citrus, but we will use it to help move off excess water after rainfall events,” Hjort says.

After originally considering planting the groves on flat ground, Hurricane Matthew changed that calculation. To make matters worse, a 10-inch rain event occurred before the hurricane passed through.

“We thought we could rely on the drain tile alone to move water off. But after that rain, the field was covered in water like a lake for some time,” Carlton says. “So, we decided we needed beds. They are not big beds like some in South Florida, but they are good sized with two rows per bed.”

Psyllid Defense

Just because their grove is isolated from other citrus, Carleton says they have no illusions about the threat of citrus greening. They have an aggressive psyllid control program and have experimented with the Tree Defender (Southern Citrus Nurseries), individual protective tree covers, on the first planting. The second planting has the Tree Defender on the entire 40 acres.

As a sign of how fast the trees are growing, the Tree Defender covers they experimented with on the first planting were supposed to cover trees up to two years old. But the trees outgrew the bags more quickly than that.

“We took the covers off after 11 months, and probably should have removed them after nine,” Carlton says. “On the second planting, we opted for larger bags.”

The trees protected by the bags will receive a couple of maintenance sprays mainly targeted at mite control. Other trees are receiving preventative sprays for pysllids.

“Not saying there are not pysllids in the groves, but to date, we have not seen any,” Carlton says. “Right now, we are on a good spray program, whether we see them or not.”

Water management tech at Tater Farms

Soil moisture sensors and precision irrigation controls are utilized to optimize irrigation and fertigation applications on the farm.
Photo by Frank Giles

Focused On Water Use and Quality

Tater Farms is in the heart of Florida’s St. Johns River Basin Management Plan (BMAP) area. Outside of the Everglades Agricultural Area, the Tri-Counties region has been one of the most scrutinized when it comes to water use and quality. In fact, the St. Johns was the first BMAP in the state.

Tater Farms is following the state’s best management practices (BMPs) for both its sod and citrus production. They have applied for and received cost-share assistance on several water conservation projects, including drain tile and overhead center pivot and lateral irrigation. The drain tile has reduced runoff and phosphorus and nitrogen leaching by as much as 40% to 50%.

“Initially, there was a lot of chaos surrounding the BMPs, and it gave the area’s potato growers a lot of heartburn because of the fertilizer rate being recommended,” General Manager Eric Hjort says. “There was some pushing back and forth, but then after good collaboration between growers, UF/IFAS, and the other regulatory agencies involved, some funds were put on the table so growers could do some experimental cost-share programs to conserve water without sacrificing yields. If you can show something will reduce water use and improve water quality, there are cost-share opportunities to be had.”