In southeast Georgia, an area of the state known for its blueberries, Brantley Morris of Morris Nursery in Alma, Ga., gets calls at least once a week from farmers who want to grow pomegranate trees.
“Right now I can’t supply the plants to the people who want them,” he said. “There’s such a demand for them.”
Some Georgia farmers are looking to bank on the multi-seeded, high-value, hard-to-peel fruit, which has surged in popularity in recent years, said Dan MacLean, a researcher with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences based in Tifton, Ga.
“Pomegranate is moving beyond a curiosity crop in Georgia, and now farmers are making a go of establishing a solid industry,” MacLean said.
The demand for trees is a reflection of the demand for the fruit. From juice to energy bars to salad dressings, pomegranates have found their way into supermarkets and kitchens across the country.
The interest in pomegranates, especially around Alma, comes from “blueberry farmers wanting to diversify,” Morris said.
Blueberry farmers finish their harvests in the summer. Adding pomegranates to their fields would give them another harvest in the fall – and a way to balance the books in any given year if the blueberries don’t produce like they had hoped.
But it’s not just blueberry growers who are adding pomegranates. MacLean has worked with a farmer who grows corn silage and pomegranates in the same field. Other farmers he knows have cleared out a few acres of peach trees to make way for pomegranates.
Currently, most pomegranates grown in the United States come from California. Most of the production is vertically integrated, MacLean said, meaning that orchards are owned, fruits are processed, and products are marketed all through a single corporation. This leaves plenty of opportunities for Georgia growers to sell their fruit to other companies.
“One of the growers I know has already secured a market for his fruit,” MacLean said. “The company he’s talked to told him to ‘let us know when your orchards start producing, and we’ll buy everything you have.’”
On the UGA campuses in Tifton and Athens, MacLean and plant pathologist Harald Scherm are trying to figure out how to keep pomegranates in the best shape possible. Disease pressure brought on by Georgia’s humid climate isn’t making it easy.
Scherm and graduate student Lucky Mehra have found Cercospora fruit spot on pomegranates MacLean picked from several test plots in Tifton, Byron and Alma. Fruit spot doesn’t hurt the arils, or the fruity flesh inside, but it does make the fruit look bad.
“It’s a new disease in Georgia,” Mehra said. “It’s been reported in India. It’s easy to control, but we don’t have chemical products registered for pomegranate. Getting them registered – that’s a big deal.”
Controlling diseases is one of many aspects of production that Scherm and MacLean hope to work out. So far, they’ve only been able to look at the pomegranate fruit at harvest time.
“On the pathology end, we like to look at fruit in a season-long fashion,” Scherm said. “How do you actually manage them? There’s a lot that needs to be done.”
“There are a ton of production-issue questions to look at,” MacLean said. “We’ve looked at the fruit, but not at the trees themselves.”
From hundreds of pomegranate cultivars, MacLean and Scherm have been able to find about 20 that do well in Georgia. Fruit from these cultivars are being evaluated for juice-making potential and antioxidant contents by Casimir Akoh and Karina Martino in the CAES Department of Food Science and Technology in Athens.
At the end of September, 50 people gathered in south Georgia for the first Southeast regional pomegranate meeting. MacLean coordinated interested industry and university faculty from South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. “We’re approaching pomegranate production more on a regional level,” he said.
Thirty people stayed the next day to learn more about pomegranates in Byron. “If that’s any indication, I think there’s a real solid interest in the crop,” MacLean said.
“We have a big potential for a big market,” Morris said. “We’re where we were 20 years ago with blueberries. Over time, I think we can build an industry in Georgia that will last like blueberries.”