Although it was National OJ Day, the Southwest Florida Small Farmers Network held its spring meeting May 4 at a Polk County facility growing citrus for the fresh market. The Story Companies and Dundee Citrus Growers Association (CGA) conducted a tour of Story’s 11-acre citrus under protective screen (CUPS) pod.
The Story pod is one of numerous such pods at the Dundee CGA CUPS site east of Bartow. Each pod has an individual owner, but Dundee CGA conducts caretaking and harvesting. The harvested fruit is committed to Dundee CGA for a number of years to ensure the association has sufficient fresh fruit to pack.
Kyle Story, vice president of The Story Companies, told the approximately 25 attendees that “it takes a lot of capital” to grow citrus in CUPS. “It is a calculated risk,” the fourth-generation citrus grower said. Story is taking the risk with CUPS because the Florida citrus industry has been devastated by low productivity and declining fruit quality since HLB disease was discovered in Florida in 2005.
Experimentation by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) has shown that CUPS can keep trees free of the Asian citrus psyllid (ACP) and the HLB it transmits. Arnold Schumann, soil and water scientist, has conducted most of the UF/IFAS CUPS work. Dundee CGA Chief Financial Officer Jennifer Schaal referred to Schumann as “the godfather of CUPS.”
Story credited Dundee CGA with doing much CUPS research worldwide prior to establishing its approximately 300-acre CUPS site. He said construction was underway on the Dundee CGA facility when Hurricane Irma destroyed some other early CUPS facilities in 2017. Dundee CGA consequently made adjustments to ensure its structures were more resistant to hurricanes.
Schaal said the Dundee CGA screens are rated for 75-mile-per-hour winds, adding, “We have not tested that here yet.”
The Story pod contains 3-year-old Early Pride mandarin trees that are much larger than field-grown trees of the same age. Some fruit was harvested this season from the more than 300 trees planted on each acre. Schaal said Dundee CGA prunes and harvests the CUPS trees by hand but is seeking a way to automate those activities.
Thus far, no ACP or HLB have been detected in the pods at the Dundee CGA site, Schaal reported. She said some other pests, including rust mites, do get through the screen and into the trees.
Schaal said a freeze that hit the industry earlier this year left frost on the ground outside the Dundee CGA pods, but there was no frost inside the pods. Irrigation was used during the freeze to protect the trees from cold.
Asked about the potential for “market saturation” by fruit coming from CUPS, Schaal said, “I think it’s going to be a long time before we hit market saturation.” She explained that fresh fruit prices have been steady, and that productivity outside of CUPS continues to decline.
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