With issues like citrus canker and citrus greening continuing to plague their industry, some Florida orange and grapefruit growers are starting to evaluate alternative crops that aren't as prone to disease or other pests.

Growers aren’t looking for substitutes for citrus, says Bill Castle, professor emeritus of horticulture at the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center in LakeAlfred.

“Growers are just looking for alternatives that would allow them to add to their bottomline and provide them some diversity.

”Blueberries and peaches already are well-established alternatives, and interest is growing in a handful of others, especially pomegranates, which have health benefits consumers find enticing.“

“There are literally hundreds of varieties of pomegranates,” says Castle, who has been investigating alternative crops in Florida since 2007.

A few varieties, like Azadi, Desertnyi, Salavatski and Medovyi Vahsha, look promising. But Castle says he has not yet analyzed the 100-plus varieties he’s raising.

“We’re still in the initial stages learning what will grow here, what will produce fruit, and what sort of pest and disease problems we’re going to have,” he says. “We might have some really good answers in another three years.”

(For information on breeding pomegranates for Florida conditions, read the Web Exclusive.)

Inherited project

Emory McTeer, owner of McTeer Farms Inc. in Haines City, Fla., inherited a pomegranate project from his late father, Harold B. McTeer, a citrus grower who was asked by the Lake Alfred research center to help evaluate pomegranates.

The project kicked off in spring 2009, and today McTeer has 180 trees with 44 varieties on 1 acre.

He’s still working to determine the best ones, but he says the varieties you choose may depend on what you plan to do with the fruit. Some may be better for fresh market, others for the juice market and still others may have a niche as ornamentals.

In addition, the arils—or seeds—can be sold in packets, and the juice also has applications in the medical industry, McTeer says.

“There’s a couple of different ways you can go with it,” he says.

So far, McTeer has found a handful of fresh-market varieties that appeal to him: Girkanet, Sweet, Suhr Anor, Salavatski and Medovyi Vasha.

He doesn’t see much of a future in Florida for the wonderful variety popularized by Delano, Calif.-based Paramount Citrus Association Inc. and sold as whole fruit and in juices and other products marketed under the Pom Wonderful brand.

“I don’t believe that’s going to be a hot number in this area,” he says.

Castle agrees with his assessment. “I don’t think [wonderful] will be a big deal in Florida,” he says, adding that several people have tried it with lackluster results.

Castle says the wonderful variety would not rank in his top 20.

“There are many other pomegranates besides wonderful that I think are wonderful,” he says.

Lykes Bros. trials

Tampa-based Lykes Bros. Inc., a diversified company with operations that include a citrus-growing division, began pomegranate trials in late 2010, says Suzanne Tate, pest and disease control supervisor and nursery supervisor.

“The citrus industry continues to face new challenges and diseases each year,” she says. “Lykes Bros. is constantly exploring alternative crops, new ideas and uses for their land.”

With Castle’s help, the company planted three rows with 23 selections of pomegranates and is caring for them like it would its citrus trees, Tate says.

“We want to know which one tastes the best and responds the best,” she says.

The trial went through two cold winters without any protection. “All except one made it through and seem to be doing fair,” Tate says.

The company has since expanded its trials, she says, adding “We still have a lot to learn.”

Similar to citrus

One advantage of pomegranates is they’re fertilized and irrigated like citrus, and they can be ready to bear fruit just two years after planting, Castle says. Citrus trees usually don’t produce significant amounts of fruit for at least three years.

But Cindy Weinstein, president of the Florida Pomegranate Association and owner of Green Sea Farms LLC in Zolfo Springs, says it’s been her experience that the trees take three years before producing commercially.

The fruit is set the second year, but it’s not mature, and there is a lot of f lower and fruit drop.

“By five years, you’re really in there,” she says.

Anecdotal observations indicate that they may need chill hours during the winter, Castle says.

The biggest challenge could be fungal diseases that proliferate in Florida’s hot, humid climate.

One called botryosphaeria “appears to be a major factor” in growing pomegranates in the state during the summer, Castle says.

Pistachio growers in California are testing some promising chemicals to fight botryosphaeria, he says, but the fungicides are not currently registered in Florida.

Leaffooted plant bugs also were a problem for some Florida growers last year, Weinstein says.

“[Plant bugs] hamper the fruit’s appearance, but they didn’t hamper the fruit at all,” she says.

Easier than peaches

Pomegranates are easier to grow than peaches, McTeer says, and about as labor intensive as blueberries.

But thorns on the branches do pose an additional challenge.

“They come back with a vengeance when you cut them back,” he says. “That’s going to keep us busy.”

McTeer has not sold his pomegranates commercially. They’re used for taste tests, field day demonstrations and for training on pruning.

With consumers craving antioxidants, pomegranates do hold potential for small farmers, McTeer says, “but on a small scale.” It’s unlikely that Florida will compete with California’s 35,000 acres of pomegranates, Castle says, but growers may find pomegranates to be a lucrative alternative to citrus.

Nurseries sell well-grown cuttings in 1-gallon containers for $7-8 apiece.

If trees are planted 242 per acre (12- by 20-foot spacing), and if pomegranates are picked two years after planting and sold for a conservative estimate of $1.50 each, each tree would produce $75 worth of fruit. Gross income per acre would be $18,150.

“Given what it costs to grow them, that’s not bad,” Castle says.

Learn more about pomegranates by visiting the University of Florida pomegranate project.