submitted by Martin Proctor
A new high tech approach to growing citrus in south Lake County is happening at Cherrylake. Through its sister company IMG Citrus, Cherrylake is planting citrus on its property in Groveland using new technologies and methods. Precision agriculture is helping to reduce water and fertilizer use, increase crop yields, optimize land use and fight Greening. Over the last 30 years, the combination of more extreme weather and Greening have been killing the citrus industry in Florida, especially central Florida.
Agriculture, particularly citrus is intertwined with the history of Florida, Groveland, and the Sallin family, owners of Cherrylake. The Sallin family business started in Groveland decades ago as a citrus operation. Like most growers, the freezes of the 1980’s wiped out their groves repeatedly and then came Greening disease.
The farm management has dealt with the adversity by continuously adapting its crops and production practices, and in 1985 they started the ornamental and shade tree farm operation you see today. “There will always be adversity in agriculture whether pests and diseases, natural disasters or market recessions, we need to adapt to change, diversify and innovate in order to survive in the long run” stated Michel Sallin Founder and CEO of Cherrylake.
It is this resilience and spirit of innovation that is bringing citrus back to Lake County. Traditionally Citrus trees have been planted at around 100 trees per acre. Today new groves on Cherrylake’s farm are planted at a minimum of 300 trees per acre with plans for a new grove this fall planted at 1,000 trees per acre. The varieties being planted are new “easy-peel” and cold hardy varieties of mandarin tangerine trees called Bingo and Tango. These new Florida varieties will compare favorably to the popular California grown Cuties and Halos and thrive in Central Florida’s well-drained soils and occasional cold snaps.
High Density and Super High Density planting methods help growers combat Greening by creating a more controlled environment where they can optimize nutrient and water management. Greening attacks the vascular system of the tree limiting the plant’s natural abilities to uptake water and nutrients through its roots and transfer resources through the trunk to the fruit. Precision agriculture utilizes a number of new technologies to ensure the trees are receiving sufficient nutrients at specific intervals. This level of precision helps keep the trees healthy and is more environmentally sustainable as it helps reduce water use and nutrient runoff.
The high-density plantings will also allow the growers to maintain smaller trees with some groves as small as 8 feet high by 3 feet wide resembling hedge-rows or grape vineyards. This helps in the control of Greening and will ultimately allow the use of mechanical harvesters as used in other tree-borne fruits like olives and nuts. Mechanization and automation, in turn, helps combat the increased cost and difficulty of hiring skilled labor in agriculture.
Soil health is another advancing technology being incorporated into the groves. Mycology is the use and control of fungi and other microorganisms to create a rich ecosystem within the soil. Fungi, nematodes and other biological agents within the soil create healthy growing conditions for plants. This contributes to the trees natural defense and immunity and promotes robust root and vascular system.
It is the combination of high-density plantings, new varieties, precision agriculture, mechanization and advanced soil science that is allowing growers like Cherrylake to bring citrus back to Lake County. But unlike the citrus of yesteryear, today’s new groves are high tech utilizing microbiology, robotics, IOT sensors, and advanced computing systems for data collection, analysis and decision making.
These new methods require a more highly trained employee. Cherrylake growers have advanced training and specialized degrees in horticulture as well as expertise in mechanical automation and data collection technology. “We are excited about bringing Citrus back to Lake County” explains Sallin “This is how our family started in the region and it is such a big part of the history of Lake County. We embrace the change; Learning and innovation are transforming our industry. We are excited about the new learning opportunities this creates for our employees and our ability to create new highly skilled jobs in our community.“