Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
EVANGELINE - Gerald Miller needed something to do after retiring from his 35-year job as maintenance supervisor at a refinery in 2010.
He found more than enough work by reviving a citrus orchard that had been started by a cousin in the 1970s.
The orchard had been neglected and overgrown for almost 15 years, so Miller had to use chainsaws and a tractor to cut wild growth to find the trees on the 3-acre orchard. “Buddy let me tell you, it was a project. It was fun to get the trees back to see what it was.”
Many of the trees had died, but there were more than enough, 300-350, to get a citrus crop.
This is not Millers’ first time to work in agriculture. He tried his hand at rice, milo and soybeans. “I sold some rice for $30 a barrel in the late 70s.”
For a while, he was trying to work in the oilfield and refineries and farm at the same time, but eventually he had to make a choice, so he left the farm for the steady income of a regular job, working in the oilfield and eventually ending up at the Citgo refinery in Westlake.
Miller has a bumper crop this year, but so far, no profits. “If I catch my costs, not counting my labor, I’ll be happy.”
He looked into the possibility of selling juice from his crop, but found out he would need considerably more trees to produce a profitable volume.
Now, he’s got more fruit that he can sell. He said several groceries are telling him that they can’t sell locally grown fruit, but he’s considering area farmers markets.
He has a citrus smorgasbord with blood oranges, navel oranges, satsumas, sweet kumquats, sour kumquats, red and white grapefruit, mandarin oranges, tangelos, tangerines, Valencia oranges. In the summer, he has blackberries.
The old orchard still has frames that allow the fruit to be covered from the cold, but Miller said he’s not going to do that. “I’ll prune ‘em and I’ll fertilize ‘em, but I’m not going to put the blanket on them.”
He had 27 lime trees until a cold snap brought temperatures lower than 20 degrees a few years ago. “I lost them all.”
Miller provides samples of the sweet, succulent fruit pulled fresh off the trees. “I’ll put this fruit against anyone’s.”
By late December, many of the trees started dropping large numbers of fruit, and LSU AgCenter County Agent Jeremy Hebert said that could be from the wide temperature swings. The roots are stressed, Hebert said, and the trees deliberately drop fruit as a survival mechanism.
Miller credits Hebert for helping turn the orchard around. “He’s helped me out unbelievably. He went beyond his line of duty.”
Hebert said he didn’t know what to expect when he came to the orchard for the first time about 5 years ago. “It’s been a learning experience for him as well as myself.”
Hebert said he’ getting more calls from people wanting to grow fruit trees. “The calls have sure picked up. People like that local produce.”
He said Miller’s operation is on the northern fringe for a commercial citrus farm. “It’s right on the line. Highway 190 is a good rule of thumb.”
Hebert said insects are the biggest problem for citrus trees, with Mealy bugs, white flies and mites. All three were a problem at the Miller Citrus Farm.
Miller said getting control of the insect problem has made a huge difference in the orchard’s production. He said this year’s crop is significantly better than the 2015-16 crop. “It’s unbelievable. Last year was probably the worst but it’s a 100 percent improvement this year.”
Hebert said spraying for the 2016-17 crop was to control the insects. “Next year, we’re going to prevent them.”
He said they will try out a fogger spraying machine that uses a blower to move a mist of insecticide over the entire plant.
Hebert said Lorsban has taken care of mealy bugs, with spraying to start in May.
Mites cause discoloration of citrus rind, but it doesn’t affect the fruit, Hebert said. Nevertheless, consumers don’t like discolored fruit. “People buy with their eyes.” Hebert advised Miller to address the problem with Agri-Mek.
Hebert said neem oil works on white flies, but Miller has had success with the chemical Admire Pro. He said the chemical is sprayed in May and June to get the ingredients into the plants’ leaves before the flies arrive.
Leaf miners are insect larvae that live in leaves. Once they have infested a plant’s leaves, it’s too late to control them, Hebert said. Using the insecticide Admire Pro also reduced the amount of leaf miners on Millers’ trees, Hebert said.
The insects’ secretions result in a black residue on the leaves, allowing sooty mold to build up. Because sunlight is blocked, the residue and mold interfere with photosynthesis, Hebert said, affecting a tree’s ability to produce an abundant crop. So Hebert said once the insects are under control, so is the sooty mold.
Sooty mold also makes an unappealing black coating on the fruit. No damage is done, but consumers want clean fruit. For a few years, Miller hand-washed each piece of fruit, but getting the insects under control has solved much of that problem.
In February, Miller will fertilize the trees by broadcasting triple 13 on the ground. Next comes pruning excess growth. “If a tree is too high for me to reach the fruit, I cut it back.”
Summertime means a constant watch for bugs, he said, and frequent mowing.
A beekeeper, Clint Bischoff of Mowata, has bee hives at the orchard provide pollination. Hebert said the bees have improved the amount of fruit the trees produce. “It’s really helped with the fruit set,” Hebert said.
Possums and raccoons also eat a considerable amount of fruit, but Miller said he’s quit fighting them. “They have themselves a party, but I let them eat because that’s less I have to pick.”
For information about Miller’s products, call him at (337) 824-7637.