Following several years of hurricanes and freeze damage, the number of citrus growers in Louisiana has continued to decline, but citrus remains a valuable commodity, according to Alan Vaughn, LSU AgCenter agent in Plaquemines Parish.

“We’ve been picking satsumas for about a month and have a few more weeks left, then we should be into navel harvest,” Vaughn said.

This is good news for citrus growers considering how bad it could have been had temperatures dropped just a few degrees lower during the hard freeze in 2010.

“We were really that close to losing the entire industry,” Vaughn said, noting a hard freeze in 1989 caused severe damage.

Even before that freeze, the industry had experienced its share of setbacks. “After hurricanes Betsy and Camille in the 1960s, the industry was devastated,” Vaughn said.

Then three times during the 1980s orchards suffered bad freeze damage, he said.

This year’s harvest has been bittersweet for some growers. Joseph Ranatza Jr. of Plaquemines Parish, lost more than 60 percent of his crop because of last winter’s freeze followed by a dry summer.

“Much of this year’s satsuma crop has already been harvested, and we expect to begin navel harvest in the next few weeks,” Ranatza said.

His operation consists of fruit sales as well as the sale of more than 150,000 fruit trees a year.

Many of the trees were hurt by cold weather last year, and this caused the short harvest season for satsumas. Ranatza said he expects a much better crop this year, which is normal after a bad freeze year.

In addition to the decrease in fruit this year, Ranatza said the quality is off also.

“A lot of my satsumas are big and puffy, and nobody wants that type fruit because it tends to be dry,” Ranatza said.

His navel crop is in a little better shape with only about a 50 percent loss.

The size of Ranatza’s operation allows him to contract with grocery stores like Wal-Mart and Winn Dixie, which gives him the opportunity to sell in large quantities and not have to depend on roadside sales as many smaller growers do.

“Overall, the crop is good, and the consumer shouldn’t notice any shortage of fruit since we only sell to a small niche market,” Vaughn said. “Everything is sold within two hours of New Orleans.”

About 550 acres of citrus are grown in Plaquemines Parish with about 55,000 trees, Vaughn said.

In Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, the citrus situation is similar to Plaquemines. Terrebonne and Lafourche have roughly 147 acres that consist of both commercial orchards and small homeowner orchards, according to Barton Joffrion, LSU AgCenter agent in Terrebonne Parish.

“There are over 100 producers, with the bulk of them being small, home-orchard producers,” Joffrion said. “Of the 100 producers, the two parishes only have about 25 who actually manage their orchard as a commercial operation.”

Satsumas and navel oranges are on the market now and will continue to “sweeten up,” Joffrion said. “The supply is good, and the crop is very sweet this year.”

While the number of growers is decreasing in Plaquemines Parish, Joffrion said, “We do have some people that are increasing their size of operation.”