In a consumer preference survey that Auburn University agricultural economists and horticulturists conducted last fall at supermarkets in six Alabama and three Georgia cities, consumers said they will want satsumas that are relatively big — at least the size of a tennis ball — and that are either orange or yellow-orange, without a hint of green.

The consumer survey was one component of a comprehensive long-term research project aimed toward reviving Alabama’s once-booming satsuma industry. The satsuma research effort, funded largely by grants from the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries and the federal government, is unusual because it focuses not only on production issues but also on the marketing aspect of a potential new specialty crop for Alabama, AU ag economist and survey director Bob Nelson said.

"This is a rare and extremely wise approach to agricultural research — to look simultaneously at the production and the marketing of a new product," said Nelson, an Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station (AAES) researcher. "There’s a lot of enthusiasm in the state right now about satsumas and the potential economic impact the industry could have. Researchers and funding agencies have had the foresight to see that marketing Alabama-grown satsumas is as key to the industry’s success as growing them."

In the consumer preference study, 35 percent of the 605 survey respondents said they would only buy satsumas that were completely orange, while 46 percent, who said they would, said yellow-orange would be fine with them. Although satsumas ripen from the inside out and often are still green-skinned even though they are ripe and ready to eat, only 19 percent of survey respondents said they would purchase green satsumas.

As for size, while satsumas are naturally small fruits, just 16 percent of those surveyed said they would consider buying satsumas that were two inches or less in diameter. Fifty-one percent said they would prefer satsumas three inches in diameter, and another 33 percent said they would buy them if they were at least two and a half inches in diameter.

The color and size preference information collected in the survey provides crucial information to the researchers and producers who are determined to revive Alabama’s satsuma industry.

"Consumers have told us that, based on physical appearances alone, color and size will be the main factors affecting their buying decisions, so those two areas are now top priorities in our research," said Bob Ebel, an Auburn University horticulture associate professor and a member of the AAES satsuma research team.

In California, the nation’s top satsuma-producing state, growers use ethylene gas to turn ripe-but-still-green satsumas orange. By the time Alabama’s 2003 satsuma harvest season begins this fall, researchers will have equipment in place to test the application of ethylene gas on Alabama satsumas and to study how to handle the fruit after treatment to maintain quality.

As for size, the key to growing large satsumas lies in effective bloom-thinning practices. Ebel explained that satsuma trees are "biennial bearers," meaning that they produce a heavy crop one year and a light crop the next. In the heavy years, when there is more fruit per tree, the satsumas are much smaller than in the light crop years. Research this spring will focus on determining how many fruit per tree will produce the most satsumas at the size consumers want, Ebel said.

Satsumas, introduced to the U.S. from Japan in the late 1800s, are small, sweet, seedless mandarin oranges with thin, loose-fitting skin that makes them a breeze to peel.

The satsuma industry was vibrant along Alabama’s Gulf Coast in the early 1900s. It reached a peak in 1923, when a growers’ cooperative shipped 700 train carloads of satsumas harvested from the state’s 12,000 acres of trees to markets along the east coast and into Canada. But a string of fruit-killing freezes in the late 1920s and early 1930s took a heavy toll on the industry, and in 1940, an extreme overnight temperature plunge wiped out not only that year’s crop but killed the trees themselves. The industry virtually disappeared.

About a decade ago, AAES researchers began looking again at satsumas as a potential specialty crop in Alabama. They took a giant step toward reviving the industry when they developed a highly effective microsprinkler irrigation system that protects satsuma trees in freezing temperatures. Last year, Alabama’s 25 commercial satsuma growers — most in Baldwin and Mobile counties — harvested about 1 million pounds of satsumas.

A portion of the money from satsuma research and marketing grants has been used to buy equipment needed to wash, wax and sort satsumas for marketing and selling. Although, to date, most Alabama satsumas have been sold at roadside stands in and around Mobile and Baldwin counties, Ebel said plans are to have Alabama-grown satsumas in various supermarkets around the state this fall.

Developing Alabama’s satsuma industry is definitely a large-scale balancing act, Ebel said.

"We’re trying to build this industry in the correct way, by balancing satsuma demand with production, and there’s a fine line there," Ebel said. "We want to help growers develop markets so they can plant more trees, but not so many that they risk over-producing for the markets we’re able to develop."

The 2002 consumer preference survey involved physical characteristics only; all-important consumer taste tests are planned for this fall.