Thorsby FFA fruit sale features locally grown produce

Published 6:51 pm Monday, October 13, 2014

Thorsby High School FFA sponsor Brian Lucas and his students seized an opportunity this year to revamp the FFA chapter’s annual fruits sale fundraiser to better serve consumers and local growers alike.

Instead of selling fruit shipped to the school from Florida, Michigan and other states, Lucas had the idea of working with growers in Chilton County and across Alabama to sell their freshly picked citrus fruit and apples at lower prices.

This year, THS began selling Alabama-grown satsumas and apples in late September and will continue through Friday, Oct. 17.

Lucas said the rising price of fruits from other states did not match the fruits’ quality, which was diminished by disease and long periods of storage prior to when the fruit was distributed to places like Thorsby for sales.

“We’ve always used the state of Florida as our resource to get the citrus fruit,” Lucas said. “This year, there’s a disease [called] greening. It attacks the vascular system of the tree and will not allow fruit to ripen. It’s hit a large percentage of the acreage in Florida and Louisiana.”

The decrease in volume of fruit harvests caused retail prices to rise, and Lucas said the quality of the oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, tangelos and apples the school normally ordered for the sale would be too low to justify the higher prices.

“This year, they sent the prices, and they were sky-high,” he said. “The quality of fruit the last few years has been average at best. The thought crossed my mind that we have satsumas and citrus we can grow here in Alabama. The quality is much better.”

Satsumas, also known as “cuties,” are small, sweet fruits similar to tangerines with zipper skin that peels easily.

“A child could peel one,” Lucas said. “A lot of kids will say they’re addictive; you can’t stop after just one.”

Lucas said he talked his idea over with growers Jason Powell at Petals from the Past and Chilton Research and Extension Center Director Jim Pitts, who both grow satsumas in the county, and they expressed willingness to help.

“To me, it’s the most common-sense opportunity that is available, and what we have from a grower’s perspective is a product that has enormous nutritional value,” Powell said. “Those growers only have limited marketing avenues open. It’s got huge potential.”

In addition, they networked with satsuma growers in south Alabama, who agreed to contribute portions of their crops to the sale.

“There’s power in numbers,” Lucas said. “In agriculture, we’re all in this together. It makes sense to help one another.”

Lucas said selling fruit grown in Alabama would mean consumers are buying fruit that is fresher with a longer shelf life because it has been picked from trees within about three days of being sold, as opposed to being stored for up to a year before consumption.

He said his students became more interested in satsumas after seeing and sampling the ones Pitts grows at the center.

“The kids loved them,” Lucas said of the fruit. “It’s pretty neat that we can grow citrus this far north.”

Although their attempts to grow them at school failed due to a harsh winter this year, Lucas and his students plan to try again when they can grow the satsumas in a hoop house to protect them from below-freezing temperatures.

Proceeds from the sale will help the FFA chapter cover transportation and registration costs associated with competitions, conventions and other educational trips students attend.

Southern Delicious apples grown in Chilton County are available in 25-pound boxes for $25 each.

Satsumas from Chilton and southern Alabama counties including Baldwin and Mobile are available in 5-pound bags for $10 each and 10-pound bags for $18 each.

“I tell the kids, ‘The more you sell, the more you can do,’” Lucas said. “It’s strictly for them. The more we do, the more expensive it becomes.”

Lucas said he plans to continue selling Alabama-grown satsumas and apples and educating the public on the benefits of buying freshly picked, locally grown fruits and supporting other growers in the county and state.

“I’m hoping if we build this relationship with citrus growers in Alabama and apple growers here, we can help each other if need be,” Lucas said. “Having those people, if you need them, is priceless.”

Powell said the THS fruit sale could also serve as a model to FFA chapters at other schools and establish a group of growers that could form an association to promote satsumas and their nutritional and economic value.

“We have a golden opportunity to really do it right,” Powell said. “If it’s as successful as we anticipate it could be, we can share it with others. Everybody could potentially benefit in this scenario.”

To place a fruit order, call Thorsby High School at (205) 280-4880.