Orange Y’all Ready for Some Sweetness?

Used to be, Savannah was a real stinkpot. 

You don’t have to be an old-timer to remember waking up to the sulfurous stank of the paper mill, back when Union Camp—now International Paper—belched eau de rotten eggs all over town like an ogre with a chronic case of acid reflux. 

But it’s only the old-timers who’d say that noxious perfume “smells like money.” Many of those folks had good jobs working at the mill and were none too pleased when Yankee consumer activist Ralph Nader and his research team came in and exposed the plant’s poisonous practices with their hippie ideals about clean water and holding industry accountable. (James Fallow’s 1971 book, The Water Lords, covering how Nader’s study subsequently saved the Savannah River is a wild, politically prickly read; Your favorite local independent bookstore can help find you an out-of-print copy.)

While International Paper is still a major regional employer, the process that churns trees into pulp for all those cardboard Amazon boxes sitting in the lanes is far less redolent than it used to be. Though I sure wish we could say that equating wealth with forcing nearby residents to endure the toxic side spoils of industrial capitalism has gone by the wayside.

But if the Cooler brothers have it their way, money around here is going to smell like oranges. 

On the banks of the Little Ogeechee River a few miles from their childhood home on Windward Island, Steve and Tom Cooler have established Chatham County’s first commercial citrus grove, part of a fast-growing agricultural industry across the state. At the moment, there’s several mature trees dangling with fat satsumas and plump pink grapefruits, but come next fall, these two acres will be a kaleidoscopic paradise of blood oranges, Australian finger limes and other exotic fruits.

“The first year, you’ve got to clip any fruit so the tree puts its energy to the roots,” explains Steve, snipping off a green-skinned satsuma he calls an “emerald” that he reveals as bright orange on the inside, its sections already sweet enough for me to gobble down. 

A contractor who’s owned this property for 30 years, he couldn’t have imagined when he planted the two tallest trees—the grapefruit and the Hamlin orange—17 years ago that it would become a burgeoning enterprise. “Every year we’d get more fruit than we could handle from the big trees, and now we could sell every single one. Who knew?”

I know what you’re thinking: Big scale citrus is a Florida thing, along with Mickey Mouse and bath salts. What does Georgia know about orange farming? We’ll stick with peaches and peanuts, thank you very much. 

But the Sunshine State’s most famous cash crop has tanked more than 50 percent in the last decade, mostly due to a nasty little insect known as the Asian Citrus psyllid spreading the disease huanglongbing—HLB for short—that causes citrus leaves to shrivel up and fall off and prevents trees from photosynthesizing sunshine into fruit. Citrus groves across Florida have succumbed to HLB, and factoring in the realities of climate change and saltwater intrusion, massive corporate farms have given up and shut down. 

While Georgia has plenty of its own nasty little insects, so far USDA restrictions and cooler overall temperatures have prevented the psyllid from gaining ground here, allowing farmers north of the state line to flourish and fill the economic void.

“It’s more than a niche, it’s a need,” says Tom of the unslaked demand for fresh citrus. 

Anyone who’s ever had to pack a lunch for a second grader understands the clamor for those easy-to-peel Cuties, and those bottomless mimosa brunches can’t exist on Prosecco alone. American-grown specimens remain the most favored, as even the dullest palate can taste the difference between fresh-picked produce and stuff that’s sat on a shipping container from Venezuela for three weeks.

Tom, an esteemed local musician who spearheads the Savannah Songwriters Series, knew “literally zero” about commercial agriculture two years ago. He’s lived on the front part of the property for several years, commuting into town for shows and restaurant work until COVID hit and the gigs shriveled up like the last sad leaf on a HLB-infected tree.  

“I woke up one day, and all my jobs were gone,” he recalls. “I knew I had to diversify, and I started poking around on Youtube.”

In other words, life gave him lemons, so Tom figured he’d lean in and grow more—and fancier, too. (Have you ever seen a pink “watermelon” lemon? Gorgeous.)  

In the late spring of 2020 after visiting the new state-backed citrus packing plant in Tifton and finding encouraging camaraderie at the Georgia Citrus Association convention, he decided to make a go of it in the front yard. Commercial citrus is big science, a Frankenstinian situation of attaching various types of root balls to different propagations to accommodate diverse conditions. Though it was the tail end of planting season, he was able to cobble together 20 trees from one of the state’s only nurseries, including a variety of seedless satsuma developed by UGA crop and soil scientist Dr. Wayne Hanna.  

Within a month, Steve had devoted several more rows to thornless, dwarf trees that will eventually grow together “like a giant hedge,” and just like that, they had planted themselves smack at the forefront of what is projected to become one of Georgia’s sweetest economic bright spots. 

For now, the brothers operate as two different businesses: Tom delivers bushels as Savannah Citrus with an eye on local restaurants and bars for the craft cocktail scene; Steve’s Satsumas of Savannah takes orders from commercial grocers and other retail outlets.  

They also have distinct ideas about growing practices: Steve’s more of a traditionalist; Tom has gone full organic, using neem oil and covering the trees with special fabric to keep out pests. Tom collects rainwater for his side, already rich with nitrogen from lightning; Steve pumps from a well and adds nitrogen to the soil. Each has his own technique to protect from frost as temperatures drop.

Yet the brothers consider their joint-but-separate ventures as more of a collaboration than a rivalry. 

“We’re coming at it from different angles,” says Steve, looking an instrument called a Brix Refractometer, which measures the sugar content of the fruit. 

“It’s an experiment for both of us,” adds Tom, placing on the glass a drop of juice from the green satsuma Steve picked earlier.  “You got a 8.5? All right!”

It’s worth cheering that this new local industry is decidedly environmentally advantageous—not only do citrus trees filter water and produce clean oxygen, but bees and other endangered pollinators adore the blossoms as much as bridesmaids love bottomless mimosas. 

I expect that the Cooler brothers and others will be scaling Savannah’s citrus quickly in the next couple of years. I can’t wait for a cocktail garnished with one of those pink lemons—and witness how individual adaptability and resourcefulness can yield sustainable economic development without stinking up the place. 

November is peak harvest, and I leave the grove with bags generously stuffed for our Thanksgiving table, including a bag of Hamlins (almost a 10 on the Brixmeter!) for my mother-in-laws’ famous sweet potato orange balls.

As I inhale the aroma of straight-up sunshine, I challenge other relics of old-timer wisdom: The future holds unlimited sweetness, and money actually does grow on trees. 

Thankful for all y’all ~ JLL