When citrus greening was first confirmed in Florida in the mid-2000s, most growers didn’t fully appreciate the devastation and massive change it would bring to the state’s signature crop. The Paul family might have had an early appreciation of those challenges, however. After all, Jack Paul II was among the first to find the disease’s vector, the Asian citrus psyllid, in a grove in 1998. He alerted family and friends that it was a serious find and meant trouble for the future.
John Paul III carried on the growing tradition, along with his sister Julie Obney, and Frank Vega, after Jack passed away in 2014. Paul Citrus Inc. now has about 2,400 acres of groves mostly in Highlands and Hendry counties.
In 2017, Paul started a new, 550-acre planting on a large tract of land in DeSoto County where he implemented some newer thinking on tree densities and irrigation ... right before Hurricane Irma.
The trees planted before the storm were laid down by the winds and had to be stood up and rehabbed, but Paul expects they will produce about 50 boxes per acre next season.
As greening spread and growers and researchers developed programs to try to keep trees productive, it eventually became clear that healthy roots are the foundation of tree health in an HLB environment. The Pauls arrived at this conclusion early on.
The 550-acre planting in DeSoto County is irrigated using a subsurface, closed-seepage system fed mostly by three large tailwater recovery ponds. With the grove’s soil consisting of 85 percent Immokalee sand, water doesn’t stick around long from rainfall or with more traditional irrigation methods. According to a study by the St. Johns River Water Management District, the subsurface irrigation also saves water, cutting usage by 45 percent from evaporation losses alone.
The 4-inch tiles are laid 36- to 40-feet apart depending on row spacing at about 3 feet below the surface. Water is pumped through the tiles from the three tailwater collection ponds that are positioned in a way to recycle water being applied to the groves as it flows down the flat, but slightly contoured land.
The land where the new groves are planted has a solid hardpan at about 5 feet below the surface. Paul says this is important because the subsurface irrigation does not perform as well on a more porous hardpan.
Weather stations and field sensors are installed in the groves to monitor conditions to help manage irrigation. Paul utilizes Ranch Systems technology to track soil moisture, salinity and temperature. The system monitors weather conditions as well.
In the new grove, Paul says higher densities are being used to push trees into production more rapidly. Valencia, with some grapefruit and other specialty varieties, comprise the majority of the 550 acres. Densities vary from 276, 303, and 550 trees per acre.
Paul is a believer in allowing natural systems to run as uninterrupted as possible. He says his fertilizer program has returned to a more traditional approach in recent years, partly for economic reasons to recover from the hard hit delivered by Hurricane Irma. The family’s groves in Hendry and Highlands counties lost up to 90 percent of their crop from the storm. Up to four applications per year are made for psyllid control in the groves. That is on the lighter side compared to some growers, but Paul believes it helps maintain beneficial insect populations.
Most of the acres in the new planting in DeSoto County were incentivized by Florida’s Natural Growers planting program. The program provides growers with a $10 per tree loan for planting. If the grower sticks with the juice processor for 10 commercial crops, the loan is forgiven.
To date, more than 1.4 million trees have been planted because of this program.
Paul says he is inquisitive by nature and open to experiment with alternative crops. In 2018, the state began to enforce rules regulating the harvest of saw palmetto berries to get a better handle on what had become an almost black-market trade marred by trespassing and dangerous working conditions for berry harvesters. The berries are used to make the popular dietary supplement for prostate health. Paul and colleague Ronnie Taylor thought it might be profitable to manage a 40-acre wild palmetto field like a cultivated crop on his DeSoto County property.