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  • Writer's pictureHawaiʻi Seed Growers

Finding a New Crop

Pū'ali kalo i ka we 'ole”

Taro, for lack of water, grows misshapen.

Your effort will manifest itself in the end result.

“What crop should I grow?” is a common question farmers new and old commonly ask. With changing tastes and also changing weather, farmers have to stay ahead of the curve and not get complacent about what and how they farm. In a place where hundreds of different crops can be grown commercially, this can be a very difficult question, and also a very expensive one if you select the wrong crop. So what is the ‘right’ crop?

There are thought processes new and old farmers need to go through in selecting or finding a crop. At a recent interview for a new Extension Agent position on the Big Island, a question was posed to the candidate, “Someone approaches you and wants to grow tangerines at Pepe’ekeo on the Hamakua Coast. How would you help this person?” The natural response to this question from a candidate would be to start in a discipline they’re strongest in, one in which they have a solid background and can respond as an expert. An agronomist will start with soil, while a plant pathologist will look at diseases. Like the story of the three blind men touching a different part of an elephant and trying to describe ‘what is an elephant’, so is the case with this important question. Whether it’s a snake or a tree stump, having an understanding of the entire ‘animal’ to make a sound decision is an important step.

This is an exercise in some steps to consider in selecting a crop.

You can know what makes a crop tick by growing it.

You can start from the beginning in setting up a farm or start from the end in identifying a market and working backward. I prefer to start with the end in mind. Without a solid market, you’re wasting your time. What is the market price and how large is the demand? Or you could create a market where none existed and this means spending a lot of time on the marketing side, and this could take up all your precious time.

Tangerine, or any citrus for that matter are long-term crops, and you may not turn a profit for seven years or more, so how do you pay your bills in the meantime? Long-term crops require more due diligence because you have to see way down the road, and may be unable to collect sufficient information to make a sound decision.

This may require actually growing the crop to have the information you need to move to the next step. There’s a thought process and defined steps required to get to the right answer, and this means having a collection of accurate and trustworthy information to make a sound decision in whether to move forward with your project or not.

Due diligence is the most important aspect of your planning because this will guide your path for possibly generations to come. You cannot dream up all the positive aspects of your project without accurately evaluating the down sides. Talking yourself into doing something that may not work out is not a good way to proceed. An honest inventory of the pros and cons requires focus injected with a balance of both realism and idealism.

If you look at the U.S. citrus market, it’s presently in disarray after Hurricane Irma destroyed parts of southern Florida, and had a major impact on citrus production, valued at $9 billion. So far, our government hasn’t been willing to bail out the citrus farmers so it’s not clear if they’ll get back to pre-hurricane production levels soon. Add the Citrus Green Disease wreaking havoc on citrus there, and Florida citrus growers are really in a pickle. Citrus is a global market with oranges making up about half of all production, but production in the Americas is huge producing about 70% of global production, with Brazil as a major player especially for processed citrus, with Florida right behind it.

Agreements and policies between the U.S. and other nations dictate a lot of what can come into their market and how much citrus will be allowed into the U.S. market, and this is in flux with the renegotiation of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and also World Trade Organization agreements.

Transportation is a major cost for neighbor island farmers when competing in the Honolulu market.

There are other sleeping giants waiting in the wings, such as Mexico who could produce a lot of citrus if more were allowed into the U.S. market. Argentina lemons are also edging their way into the US market. We have little influence over policy, so as a farmer, you control the things you have control over, and you have a lot of control over a lot of things, especially on the production side.

Tangerines are sold on the fresh fruit market, with the bulk imported from California. Any weather anomaly can create either over- or under-supply, and your tangerines will be part of this market, along with every backyard grower in Hilo if you’re selling on the Big Island. How will you deal with these large and small bumps in the road?

There’s a belief that the farther away you sell your crop from your home base, the more valuable it will be. This is sometimes the case, but tangerines are both fragile and delicate, and must be refrigerated to maintain its shelf life. Knowing your competition is part of the game. Try selling dragon fruit in Chinatown on Oahu when Vietnam is flooding the market, retailing for $1.99 and you’re trying to sell yours for $3 wholesale? This is real! So the market is the first step, and there are a lot of crops that could be grown commercially on the Big Island, and I suspect that a lot of it is presently ending up on the ground, not only avocados. There’s an agribusiness waiting to be created from present waste and culls, but this is for another newsletter. The ‘market’ is a nebulous word and conjures all kinds of ideas and also misconceptions. Yes, the citrus market is in flux and how do you get in there and stake your claim? As a farmer friend used to say to me, “There’s a lot of moving parts”, which reminds me of a Swiss watch that no longer works. Any break in one cog screws up the entire works, and it’s usually the little things that can cause the greatest problems.

Contrary to popular belief, most wholesalers in Hawaii don’t care where the crop comes from, as their starting price is ‘California plus freight’, not special dividends or bonuses for fresh or Hawaii grown. This is a stark reality unless you can find a few marketers and markets who espouse to these values and they’re out there, but you have to find them.

Does you crop require electricity for post-harvest processing? Maui’s Kaheawa Ridge windmills

Too many farmers spend most of their time in the production phase without committing enough energy on marketing, and as a result, they don’t get top dollar for their product. At the same time, you can’t spend a lot of time on marketing if you have nothing to sell, so the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle. Knowing what’s going on in the market, in every segment of the market, is very important.

Citrus is the highest value crop in terms of international trade. What kind of citrus is California and Florida growing and why? Who has the competitive advantage in growing different kinds of citrus? What seasons do they focus on? The California citrus industry is based on oranges, the Valencia variety for summer sales and the Navel for winter sales with some overlap during the spring months, but there’s some expansion into tangerines, and you see a lot of it on the Hawaii market. Florida has is more focused on juice, but more in flux and could change overnight as Brazil expands.This has to do with seasons when their products are available and whether they have competitive advantages over other major production areas. Once you have mature trees in the ground, chopping it all down and grafting another citrus variety is an option, albeit costly, but this has happened both in California and Florida. Sometimes imported tangerines are sweet and sometimes they’re not, so we in Hawaii don’t always get the best tasting fruits because they’re all picked for shipment and not at the peak of ripeness. This may be an opportunity for local growers, but this takes marketing and education, and also product promotion.

California tangerines are seedless so this is the market standard, but not all tangerine varieties are seedless. Keeping seedless tangerines seedless can be a challenge, and it means not having bees pollinating your tangerines with pollen from another citrus species or sometimes even another variety of tangerine for that matter. It’s been said that most citrus are hybrids between different citrus species. Then you have tangors, a cross between tangerines and oranges sold as tangerines such as Honey or Murcott, and you also have tantangelos which is a cross between a tangerine and a tangelo, while a tangelo is a cross between a tangerine and a pumelo, so you get the picture.

Turmeric has been touted as the next hot export crop for Hawaii, but can we distinguish our crop in the marketplace from others imported from China or Southeast Asia? Last year, some citrus growers in California were suing bee keepers for cross pollinating their tangerines and creating seeds, so how are you going to protect your tangerines from producing seeds, a natural process for most plants, or you can come up with some cockamamy marketing approach that tangerines with seeds are healthier for you and contain special antioxidants if you eat the seeds?!?! This is also part of marketing. It all comes down to how much time you want to spend time on a different aspects of farm planning, but time is money, something most new farmers have little of. There’s some merit to going through a strategic planning process to get to yes or no, starting with you.

After being involved in extension work for over 35 years, I think I’ve seen farmers of all shapes and sizes, and there’s a certain kind of mindset required in going through the steps like not willing to accept no for an answer or having real drive. There’s money to be made out there because more humans are born each day, and less are dying, so you have a growing market. This is basic economics. More people have to eat, and eat tangerines they will.

Varieties and Challenges

I use the term ’tangerine’ loosely because that’s what we call them in Hawaii, while those from other places call it mandarin, which may not be accurate either. While it’s good to know where the ‘tangerine’ varieties originated just from the standpoint of adaptability to your farm climate, this information may not help you due to cultivars selected in other climatic regions of the world. Tangerine could be considered the citrus of the future since its more cold tolerant that oranges and among the most drought tolerant, requiring less water to produce a crop compared to other citrus. Tangerines are believed to have originated in Southeast Asia and the Philippines. With sufficient isolation and selection, tangerines have evolved as unique varieties or cultivars.

The importance of selecting the right variety cannot be underestimated. Some dragon fruit varieties may yield 3-4 times more than average varieties. The right fruit color can also enhance product demand on the market and distinguish you from the others. USDA dragon fruit accessions. Depending on what botanist you ascribe to, tangerines are separated into classes or subgroups, including Tangerine, Mandarin, and Satsuma. Others would add a few more classes or subgroups. The Ponkan is esteemed in China and also known as Chinese Honey Orange, and are the most tropical in adaptability, but they don’t like hot arid conditions. The Mediterranean or Italian, also known as Willowleaf is considered a Mandarin. It has a drooping habit, known for its distinctive aroma, and is believed to have been brought to Italy from Egypt and Malta. The Satsumas or Unshu originate from Japan, and prefer cooler conditions. The King or King of Siam group is from Vietnam, and has the largest fruits.

The Tangerine group is the most important for breeding in Hawaii, and originated from North Africa, around Tangiers, Morocco where the name ‘tangerine’ comes from. An important tangerine is Clementine or Algerian, a small fruit with many good qualities and a parent of many excellent tangerines adapted to Hawaii conditions. Hawaii has some really sweet and juicy tangerines, but which variety should you grow and are they all really tangerines? Recommended varieties for Hawaii based on observations at Hawaii Research Stations include Fairchild, Freemont, Lee and Nova. However, this is not based on recent observations throughout the state. Fairchild, Lee, and Nova are selections of a cross between Clementine and Orlando tangelo, so all are technically tantangelos, while Freemont is a selection from a cross between Clementine and Ponkan.Others varieties that have done well in some parts of the state include Dancy, Satsuma, Ponkan, Wilkings, Clementine, and many more not to mention that tasty seedling in your neighbor’s yard. This is one place to start, but if you pick the wrong variety it could be a disaster.

Each variety has its pros and cons such as sunburn tolerance, easy peeling, high brix, disease resistance, and concentrated fruit set versus a little production throughout the year. There are also tradeoffs; easy peeling varieties don’t store well on the tree. Having a tangerine that’s consistently sweet is the goal, but a lot of it depends on your farm weather along with how you care for your crops, and knowing how to take care of your crop is a definite advantage. All of this seems complicated, but so is agriculture.

Growing the right variety can make the difference, between success and failure. Lacinato or Dinosaur kale is one of the most popular.

What about the root stock, a very important part of a healthy plant that can affect plant size and vigor as well as resistance to root diseases like Phytophthora and other diseases? A recent publication on the topic, Tropical Fruit Tree Propagation