Last year’s hurricanes flooded Ben Becnel Sr.’s citrus groves with saltwater, thrashed three of his greenhouses and workers’ quarters and destroyed or otherwise damaged hundreds of orange trees.
And he was one of the lucky ones.
Further south in Plaquemines Parish, Katrina and Rita laid waste to entire communities, destroying houses and livelihoods and threatening the future of the state’s prized, niche citrus industry.
“We’ve lost a lot before,” with hurricanes and freezing temperatures killing trees, if not groves, agricultural agent Alan Vaughn said. But this is different, he said: “With freezes, you could go back and plant trees. Now, the grove is the low man on the list, when you have to rebuild your house.”
With harvest under way and the parish’s weekend-long orange festival set to begin Friday, farmers like Becnel, with navel oranges and satsuma mandarins to sell, are trying to fill strong demand, while older producers such as 73-year-old Gerald Ragas are struggling to start over.
It will be at least four years until the small trees he replanted to replace some of the 450 trees he lost will begin bearing fruit.
“I’ve had people say, Are you out of your mind, Jerry?” said Ragas, who lives near Buras. “ ... What am I going to do, sit in a recliner chair and go away?”
Louisiana’s citrus industry has a cult-like, regional following and is known especially for its navel oranges. The first trees were planted during French colonial times, in the 1700s, but serious farming didn’t begin until the 1850s. Only about 1,330 citrus acres were planted statewide in 2004, tiny when compared to the hundreds of thousands of acres in industry leaders Florida, California and Texas. It’s such a niche market that the U.S. Department of Agriculture only reports on Louisiana’s industry every five years.
Many of Louisiana’s citrus farms are in Plaquemines Parish, where a long finger of Mississippi River delta extends into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, creating an excellent climate for citrus growing. In 2004, parish farmers produced 405,000 bushels of navels and satsumas, the vast majority of the statewide total, according to the LSU Agricultural Center. Some of the fruit was shipped out of state and to major cities such as Chicago. But most of it was sold closer to home, through word of mouth and from places like roadside stands or regional grocers.
In 2005, the year of the storms, parish production fell to 120,000 bushels — and the market became more localized.
The hurricanes wiped out about half the acreage in Plaquemines, Vaughn said, leaving behind limited oranges and questions about whether the industry, comprised of family farms, can rebound.
“Until insurance issues and levee issues are cleared up, that’s a question in people’s minds,” parish President Benny Rousselle said. “How many will replant?”
Vaughn isn’t convinced everyone will; the work is hard, and farmers are getting older. “I don’t know we can (fully) recover,” he said.
What makes Plaquemines great?
sk folks what makes Plaquemines oranges so great, and they’ll know instantly that you’re not from here. This is, after all, a fruit that’s celebrated each year.
“If you taste our fruit, I’ve never had anyone say, Eh, that’s OK,” Vaughn said. “The navels will drip (juice) down your arm.” Vaughn believes the climate and rich delta soil give Plaquemines oranges an edge in taste.
J.B. Falgoust, who has bought Plaquemines oranges for years, recently traveled about 110 miles, from his home near Vacherie, upriver from New Orleans, to Buras, to find Ragas and the oranges he’s traditionally given as Christmas presents.
“You’d think he’d say ’I quit.’ But no, he’s coming back,” Falgoust said.
The Becnels, who also sell citrus at a roadside stand, have been supplying loyal customers with limited amounts of fruit but turning down some orders, Becnel Jr. said. In years past, fruit would be shipped to customers and chain stores in markets such as Atlanta, Indianapolis and St. Louis. But this year, with a supply pinched by last year’s hurricanes and poorer growing conditions, the farthest its being trucked is Baton Rouge, Becnel Sr. said.
Prices are up from 2004, from about $14 for a 40-pound box to $22.50 a box. But with costs such as spraying and fertilizing, and the total loss of about 350 trees to the storms, it still won’t be enough to break even, Becnel Sr. said.
He figures they’ll produce just 10,000 boxes of fruit this year; in a good year, they’d produce three to four times that. Their financial saving grace will be their vegetables, which did well, he said.
While it’s been a difficult year, the Becnels, fifth and sixth generations in this business, can’t see getting out of the industry now; it’s what they know.
Becnel Jr. said he’d keep on “until God moves me.”
“He was close,” he said, “but we’re still here.”