Featured: Mani Skaria, PhD, the Founder, President, and CEO of U.S. Citrus, LLC, a 550-acre state-of-the-art facility located in Hargill with the potential to produce large quantities of high-quality, disease-free citrus trees of many different varieties for sale.
Photograph Courtesy https://www.facebook.com/am.skaria
U.S. Citrus Texas Legislative News Service, which will report on state leaders’ impact on agriculture, including $200 million citrus industry, launched by Mani Skaria, PhD, the Founder, President, and CEO of U.S. Citrus
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
– Mahathma Gandhi
By DAVID A. DIAZ
Mani Skaria, PhD, the Founder, President, and CEO of U.S. Citrus (USCitrus.com), located in Hidalgo County near the rural community of Hargill, has launched an Internet news network as a public service to help Texans become better informed and more effective participants in the Texas Legislature.
U.S. Citrus Texas Legislative News Service features high-quality journalism about the key actions of the Texas Legislature and major statewide officeholders, and how they impact the $100+ billion Texas agricultural economy – which includes the Texas citrus industry, valued at $200 million, which is centered in the Rio Grande Valley.
U.S. Citrus is a 550-acre state-of-the-art facility with the potential to produce large quantities of high-quality, disease-free citrus trees of many different varieties for sale.
Skaria, a renowned citrus plant pathologist and successful entrepreneur, and his family are longtime residents of McAllen. He and his wife, Anne Skaria, are proud parents of son Rony T. Skaria, M.D., and daughter Amy A. Skaria, M.D.
Key individuals and institutions to be covered by U.S. Citrus Texas Legislative News Service shall include, but not be limited to:
• The Rio Grande Valley state legislative delegation;
• The Rio Grande Valley congressional delegation and both U.S. senators;
• The debates and actions of the Texas House of Representatives and the Texas Senate;
• The Governor of Texas;
• The Lt. Governor of Texas;
• The Speaker of the House;
• The Texas Commissioner of Agriculture and the Texas Department of Agriculture;
• The Texas A&M University System, its Board of Regents, and its Chancellor; and
• The University of Texas System, its Board of Regents, and its Chancellor.
U.S. Citrus Texas Legislative News Service has been created because the Rio Grande Valley state and congressional delegations are key players in shaping laws and policies that affect agriculture, and because the Texas citrus industry, whose products are famous worldwide, has the potential to become a multi-billion dollar economic engine, just like in California and Florida.
“Look at what the citrus industries have done in California and Florida. Tens of thousands of jobs now exist in California and Florida because of their citrus industries,” Skaria noted. “The annual economic impact of the citrus industries in California and Florida are $8.6 billion and $7.1 billion, respectively.”
To borrow a famous saying about another food industry, “when we are talking about the potential for the citrus industry in Texas, we are not talking ‘small potatoes’,” he emphasized.
Agriculture in Texas is so important that one of every seven working Texans (14 percent) is in an agriculture related job, according to Texas Department of Agriculture.
“Texas leads the nation in cattle, cotton, hay, sheep, goats and mohair production. Texas leads the nation in the numbers of farms and ranches (248,800). Texas has more women and minority operations than any other state in the nation, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture,” Skaria said. “U.S. Citrus Texas Legislative News Service, with its stories and images, will inform and educate Texans on what our top state leaders and our South Texas legislative delegations are doing to help agriculture, including citrus, grow as worldwide economic powers.”
In Skaria’s dedication to public service, U.S. Citrus Texas Legislative News Service shall send out its news coverage and images, at no charge for their use, to Rio Grande Valley journalists, and business, political, agricultural, and elected leaders in deep South Texas, and at the Texas Capitol.
“Soon, we will have our own website online for U.S. Citrus Texas Legislative News Service, and anyone in the world will have free access to our stories and images,” he added. “We will announce the launching of our website as soon as we are on the Internet.”
Rod Santa Ana, a prolific writer with the Texas A&M University System, has chronicled some of the groundbreaking achievements of Skaria, including the following two profiles:
MANI SKARIA HONORED WITH ARTHUR T. POTTS AWARD FOR “OUTSTANDING CONTRIBUTIONS AND SERVICE TO CITRUS INDUSTRY OF THE RIO GRANDE VALLEY”
Skaria in February 2016 won the Arthur T. Potts Award for his “outstanding contributions and service to the citrus industry of the Rio Grande Valley.”
The award was presented earlier that month at the 70th annual meeting of the Subtropical Agriculture and Environments Society held at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco.
The 2016 Arthur T. Potts Award was presented by Dr. Alex Racelis, president of the society and a biology professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. It is named for Arthur T. Potts, who conducted work in citriculture (the cultivation of citrus fruit trees) long before the establishment of the commercial citrus industry in Texas.
Potts established agricultural experiment stations throughout the state on behalf of the Texas A&M System, including the Weslaco center in 1923.
In accepting the award, Skaria thanked his mentor, Dr. John Fucik, and many others who contributed to his successes, urging younger scientists in the audience to respect and honor those who came before them.
“I am being honored today because of all the people behind the scenes who helped me,” he said. “I could have never succeeded without them. To the young people in our industry, I urge you to always acknowledge and give thanks to the people who helped you in your careers, all of which is possible by the grace of God.”
After a 25-year career as a scientist at the Texas A&M-Kingsville Citrus Center at Weslaco, Skaria launched a business – now known as U.S. Citrus – based on advice he gave local citrus producers, to “think outside the box” in their efforts to remain profitable in a challenging market fraught with pests and devastating plant diseases, including citrus greening.
To combat major acreage losses in Florida and other citrus-producing regions of the world, Skaria suggested growers plant high-density orchards with trees that were micro-budded, a system he developed to graft sour orange rootstock using so-called “disruptive technology.”
The resulting trees, he said, produce abundant fruit in a fraction of the time required by conventionally budded citrus trees.
“By using micro-budded trees, we completely eliminated the nursery phase of tree development,” he said. “Instead of two years in the nursery, our trees are ready for planting in four months. This saves time and money.” Taking his own advice and with the assistance of investors, Skaria founded U.S. Citrus, LLC, near Hargill, north of Edinburg, a 550-acre state-of-the-art facility with the potential to produce large quantities of high-quality, disease-free citrus trees of many different varieties for sale.
The venture has “well proven that commercialization of micro-budded, high-density citrus orchards is possible using modern techniques,” Skaria said. “In the old times, growers planted a citrus orchard with the idea that in 18 years, their children or grandchildren would eventually reap the full financial benefits of their efforts. This new system reduces the time of full payback on an orchard investment from almost two decades to just half the time required of conventional trees.”
Yields, he said, vastly improved while inputs were greatly reduced.
Skaria said he intended to extend his new technology to other citrus producing areas of the world, including California, Florida, Jordan and his home country of India.
Dr. Juan Landivar, Director of the research center in Weslaco and keynote speaker at the society’s annual meeting, said Skaria exemplified recipients of the Potts Award.
“This prestigious award honors those who go above and beyond their own interests in horticulture,” he said. “Mr. Skaria and other recipients work and live their lives in service of others, helping the industry succeed.
“Mani took the scientific knowledge he tirelessly acquired while working with the Texas A&M University System, then applied his wisdom in retirement to revolutionize the way citrus is produced in the world in a time of peril,” Landivar added. “He spends as much time working his business as he does teaching others, at no cost, how to benefit from his extensive knowledge.
That’s what the Arthur T. Potts Award is all about, making contributions to horticulture for the benefit of all, producers and consumers alike,” he said.
Previous Potts Award winners include retired U.S. Congressman Kika de la Garza, Dr. Jose Amador, Dr. Ben Villalon, Barbara Storz, Dr. Victor French and Clay Everhard.
SKARIA IGNITED “ORANGE REVOLUTION” TO FIGHT CITRUS GREENING
In 2008, Skaria, then a plant pathologist at the Texas A&M University-Kingsville Citrus Center at Weslaco, encouraged the citrus growers he worked with to think outside the box.
He urged them to ignite what he called the Orange Revolution. Too many factors, including exotic diseases, high land prices and urbanization, were slowly squeezing veteran citrus growers out of the business, he said. The citrus industry wasn’t doing well and it was time for growers to change their longtime cultural practices. Skaria’s revolution, named after Dr. Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution and his life-saving wheat improvement projects of the mid-20th century, called for growers to switch to high- density planting using micro-budded trees that produce fruit quickly.
Skaria reasoned that the only way to stay one step ahead of tree-killing diseases and prohibitive expenses was to produce more citrus fruit per acre quicker using cost-effective methods.
“Back then, I was talking the talk with the field experience I’d had with micro-budded citrus,” Skaria said. “But now, I’m walking the talk, encouraged by extraordinary field successes with micro-budded trees planted between 2008-2013 in at least seven South Texas locations.”
After a 25-year career with the Texas A&M University System, Skaria retired in March 2013 and began practicing what he had been preaching.
In a partnership with others, Skaria founded MicroTech LLC – now known as U.S. Citrus, LLC – which purchased a large tract of land outside Hargill in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The company has begun producing and planting citrus trees while workers build what Skaria says is a state-of-the art facility that eventually will be emulated globally.
Two experts, Barbara Storz and Dr. Juan Anciso, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service horticulturist and a citrus specialist in Hidalgo County, respectively, were encouraged by Skaria’s premise and believe his system may help growers manage the economic impact of greening disease until a long-term solution is found.
Citrus greening is an incurable bacterial disease that is not harmful to humans, but clogs a tree’s vascular system, prevents fruit from maturing and eventually kills the tree. The disease is spread by a tiny insect known as the Asian citrus psyllid.
Opportunities arise when disaster strikes, Skaria insists, such as the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. Solutions throughout agricultural history are well documented.
While visiting a citrus orchard east of Mission that has two- and three-year old micro-budded citrus trees, Storz and Anciso agreed the new orchard system could offer growers a way to circumvent adversities and stay in business.
“If we have to start replacing trees because of citrus greening and/or a freeze, this method of high-density, micro-budded trees is a whole lot less expensive,” Storz said. “The trees are less expensive, the labor to plant them is cheaper and trees produce fruit sooner. A grower can dramatically cut down the time, space and money needed to produce citrus.”
In a process Skaria developed, hardy sour orange rootstocks are grown from seed in a tubular container and micro-budded when the rootstock is still small. Within two or three weeks, the newly budded rootstock begins to grow and is soon ready for transplanting to an orchard.
Unlike traditionally grafted trees, micro-budded trees do not spend 12-18 months or more in a nursery before they can be transplanted, makes them less expensive, Skaria said. And for reasons not yet thoroughly studied, micro-budded trees mature and produce more fruit and quicker than traditionally grafted citrus trees.
“These micro-budded trees are not genetically modified,” he said. The idea of harvesting fruit on a commercial basis just three years after planting is unique and “pretty special,” Storz said. “Normally, trees take five years before you can harvest fruit, and certainly not in the amount that this micro-budded, high-density grove is producing,” she said. “That means that the length of time before growers start seeing a return on their investment is shortened. A grower could start harvesting fruit after only two years and by the third year, you’d be in business.”
Skaria said this system helps growers keep pace with losses.
“In a well-maintained orchard,” he said, “assuming citrus greening pressure of a three percent yearly incidence, a high density, micro-budded orchard could definitely bring an economic advantage, unlike a traditional orchard.”
Anciso said high-density planting offers advantages because they reduce the space, time and cost involved in producing fruit.
“In relation to citrus greening, I think this production system does offer an alternative,” he said. “Growers may be able to make it work economically by having larger production quicker. In a micro-budded orchard, trees are planted in high density, with more than 500 trees per acre, which is a completely different system from what we’ve been using here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. In a conventional orchard there would normally be about 121 to 130 citrus trees per acre, so this is roughly three times the amount of trees per acre.”
U.S. Citrus, LLC in Hargill, of which Skaria is the Founder, President, and CEO, is growing citrus varieties that won’t necessarily compete with fruit grown commercially in the area, he said.
“Our fruit production will concentrate on those citrus varieties that are in short supply in Texas, including oranges, Persian limes, mandarin varieties, specialty grapefruit and other assorted varieties, but our main focus will be on producing high-quality Persian limes.”
Other innovations of the new citrus facility are the use of windbreak trees, sod in the orchards and sniffer dogs to detect citrus greening.
“We plant fast-growing trees along the perimeter of our orchards as well as between rows of trees,” Skaria said. “Closely mowed grass will be maintained between trees and we’re in the process of training two African Boerboels to serve as watchdogs and to detect citrus greening, a practice that has shown to be a possibility, as per limited studies in Florida.”
The grass on the orchard floor will serve two purposes: to reduce damage to fruit and tree leaves by windblown sand, and to serve as a reservoir for beneficial mites and insects that will help keep pests in check while reducing the amount of pesticides used in the orchards.
“U.S.Citrus in Hargill, with effective management and production staff, is totally integrated because we produce trees, plant them, care for them in an environmentally safe way, harvest them and market the fruit,” Skaria said. “In the interest of food safety, we want total control of the fruit all the way to consumers’ hands, and to be in compliance with the rules of federal organic produce standards.”
Skaria said the facility used what he calls an ‘organic-plus’ method of producing citrus.
“We don’t use any herbicides,” he said. “We’ll stick as closely as we can to the spirit and the law of organic production, with minor adjustments as needed to keep our citrus free of fungal toxins and pesticides, focusing on quality assurances to consumers.”
Rod Santa Ana and the Texas A&M University System contributed to this article. For more information, please contact Mani Skaria, PhD at [email protected].