The citrus industry in the United States is facing a lot of challenges. Citrus greening, high labor costs, and other factors are taking their toll on US citrus growers. A Texas-based citrus scientist and entrepreneur is aiming to turn this around with a method that hastens the maturing of citrus trees and densifies orchards in rural Hargill in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Dr. Mani Skaria founded US Citrus after decades of working in the industry and at Texas A&M University in Kingsville. Over 20 years ago, he developed ‘Micro-budding’, which is a grafting method that dramatically shortens the length of time for budding.

“The Micro-budding process begins with rootstock, a small plant with approximately two-millimeter diameter stem germinated from a seed in a controlled environment,” Skaria explained. “Buds from desirable mother trees are then hand-grafted onto the rootstock, using proprietary technologies. In less than six weeks, the buds have sprouted and are ready to be planted in the field.”

The main reason Skaria is promoting Micro-budding is the ability of the tree to bud much earlier than conventional citrus trees. He noted that subsequent lead times in planting an orchard are considerably reduced.

“Micro-budded citrus is adaptable for direct planting into the field, thereby bypassing the nursery phase,” he said. “This means savings on tree cost, which in turn means you can plant more trees per acre for higher density planting. Bypassing the nursery phase means a decision made to develop an orchard to actual tree planting is a couple of months away, compared to a couple of years for standard nursery trees. Trees are bearing fruit after just 2-3 years and are planted in high density, with the possibility of more than 690 trees per acre.”

According to Skaria, the fact that trees can be grown closer together brings passive benefits for other parts of the business. “Because Micro-budding plants offer an economical high-density planting, it brings the most efficient use of pesticides in an orchard, no chemicals fall on the bare ground and contaminate soil and water,” he explained.

US Citrus has enabled the Micro-budding method to be applied to all citrus varieties, including lemons, limes, mandarins, oranges, and others, even kumquats and blood oranges. The company said the trees are disease free and can be shipped to most states.

“All US Citrus trees are grown in USDA certified enclosed nursery facilities,” Skaria said. “Furthermore, the facilities are routinely inspected, and trees are tested for diseases by the USDA. It is also suitable for organic production. We can ship trees to most states, however at this stage, federal regulations prevent us (or any other citrus grower) from shipping citrus trees to CA, FL, AZ, HI, or LA. However, we will be working with USDA-APHIS and citrus producing states for permission to ship to those states in the future as we produce all trees in a USDA-certified facility and shipped with compliance agreement.”

When discussing the benefits of Micro-budding, Skaria expressed his desire to benefit the entire US citrus industry, which he said is in much need of a boost. He compared the rapid fruiting and orchard densifying to what the apple industry turned to several decades ago, which has helped that industry become profitable for US growers.

“After 20 years of concerted effort, we have created a solution to make the citrus industry profitable once again in the US,” he said. “Apple orchards became high density a generation ago, but this has not spread to the citrus industry. There is a lot of doom and gloom around citrus in the US and we are looking to bring a positive outlook for the future of the industry. For example, we have successfully brought back commercial limes to US soil for the first time in 15 years.”