Sustaining Citrus With Soil Improvement

Josh McGillCover Crops, HLB Management, Soil Health

By Frank Giles

HLB has taken a toll on growers both large and small over the years. That’s been the case with third-generation grower Chuck Bellamy, who grows citrus near Inverness, Florida. His grandparents planted the first trees on the property in 1930. A few of those trees are still alive in the grove nearly 100 years later.

Chuck Bellamy began experimenting with regenerative practices in 2018. In 2020, he went all in.
(Photo by Frank Giles)

Bellamy says he was fortunate for many years and protected from the disease because his grove was relatively isolated. But in 2014, HLB symptoms began showing up in his trees and quickly spread. By 2018, his trees were in steep decline, and he worried about future sustainability.

Being a small grower (20 acres), he didn’t have the resources to continue dumping money into falling production due to the disease. So, beginning in 2018, he began experimenting with regenerative practices to help restore soil biology and tree health.

He learned about these practices from fellow growers Ed James and Brad Turner, who have been working with cover crops and microbial blends to boost soil health. Bellamy says he began seeing some results in the first year and continued improvements in subsequent years.

There are a handful of trees in the grove that date back to the original planting in 1930.
(Photos by Frank Giles)

He says these practices have helped him keep his citrus business viable. It has helped him reduce costs, and more importantly, reduce fruit drop. He has not seen a large bump in yields, but he’s keeping what’s on the trees.

“I don’t think you are going to see this huge bump in yield,” he says. “My theory is the root systems of these trees are so diminished by HLB that it will be hard to achieve a large increase. But I am not dropping fruit anymore. So, I might not be jumping from 200 boxes per acre to 400, but if I can hold onto those 200 boxes while reducing costs, I can keep growing citrus.

“If I had not started these (regenerative) practices, I probably would not be in business right now. I really do believe this could be the way that smaller growers can keep in the game.”

The cost savings Bellamy has been able to achieve are significant. He does all the farm labor himself except for harvest, which also helps to reduce expenses.

“I spent $400 per acre in the grove last year and picked most all the fruit the trees set. And you’d be surprised how much fruit is set in trees going into next season given the severe drought we’ve been experiencing.”

Bellamy says this drought probably is the second worst he can remember the farm experiencing. From January to late April, the grove only received 3 inches of rain. Half of that came in one rainfall event.

Despite drought, the grove has set a pretty good crop for the coming season. The soil-health building practices seem to help hold the fruit until harvest.
(Photo by Frank Giles)

Bellamy says if he had it to do over again, he would have deployed the full slate of regenerative practices from the start. That’s because he believes he would have benefited more quickly if he’d done so.

“In 2018, I started injecting humic and fulvic acid through my irrigation,” he says. “Then I did it again in 2019, along with a one-time application of compost/sludge. I was beginning to see some results in the trees and a little less fruit drop, so in 2020 I went all in. I wish I would have done that from the beginning.”

Acid injections help encourage nutrient uptake by the roots. The acids naturally oxidize in the soil, giving them a negative charge. Important plant nutrients like magnesium, calcium, iron and other trace minerals are positively charged. So, in the presence of humic acids, these nutrients unlock from the soil and bind to humic acids. Then they can be transferred to the root system of the tree.

In addition to injecting acid, Bellamy began planting cover crops and applying microbial products via irrigation injection in 2020. He has mostly relied on sunn hemp as his cover crop of choice. The cover crops are planted in June when the rainy season gets underway. The cover crops are then mowed in late September or early October to add organic matter back to the soil. Bellamy also applies wood chips to the grove once per year to add more composting material and organic matter.

By August, sunn hemp is growing tall. It will be mowed in early fall to add biomass to the soil.
(Photo by Chuck Bellamy)

Research shows sunn hemp can improve soil properties, reduce soil erosion, conserve water and recycle plant nutrients. When grown as a summer annual, sunn hemp can produce over 5,000 pounds of biomass and 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre.

Bellamy sources his cover crop seed from Melton Seed Co. and Hancock Farm & Seed Co. in Dade City, Florida. Last year, he supplemented his sunn hemp planting with iron clay peas. Sunn hemp seed was in short supply because it’s a popular selection for strawberry growers and is increasing in use in other crops.

Bellamy plants about 50 pounds of sunn hemp seed per acre in his grove. The nutritional benefits have allowed him to back off on his commercial nitrogen applications.

“In February, I apply about 40 pounds per acre of commercial nitrogen, which is a lot less than conventional practices,” he says. “I have not seen my fruit size diminished at all by the reduction.”

In June, he makes an oil or insecticide application for pests and steps away unless some dramatic increase in pest pressure or other issue occurs. Because of the cover crops, he has a healthy population of beneficial insects in the groves to help keep pests in check.

“After that application in June, I pretty much walk away from the grove until about October unless something really needs attention,” Bellamy says. “I will monitor it and irrigate if needed, but it is pretty much on its own from early summer until the fall.”

Bellamy’s grove is primarily Hamlin, which makes the reduction in fruit drop even more impressive. The variety has been one of the most affected by HLB-induced fruit drop. His Hamlins are sold for juice or as fresh citrus based on the market. He also has about 5 acres dedicated to fresh citrus with navel and Honeybell varieties.

“The Hamlins are holding the fruit and they are on Swingle, which has not been a great combo for fruit retention,” Bellamy says. “This tells me these practices are making a difference. Three out of the past five years we’ve sold the fruit into the fresh market.”

Bellamy’s 20-acre grove has bounced back since he began applying regenerative practices. He believes these production methods may help small growers stay in business.
(Photo by Frank Giles)

One of the big mental hurdles growers have to get over with cover crops is that groves will not look well-groomed. But Bellamy says the benefits outweigh the looks. It just takes some getting used to and maybe a little communication with neighbors.

“Before I started doing all this, I kept my groves mowed and manicured all the way out to the row ends,” he says. “When those cover crops started growing and getting thick in the groves, I had several neighbors stop by and check on me. They thought I had some kind of health complications that was keeping me from getting out there and working to keep everything clean.

“I can take the groves and trees not looking as pretty as they used to, but I can’t take the fruit drop,” he says. “What I am doing now seems to have helped the fruit-drop problem.”

About the Author

Frank Giles


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