Citrus down by the bayou
On the very northern edge of this country's citrus growing zone, organic citrus farmers Lester and Linda L'Hoste have suffered killing frosts and fruit-killing bugs. Down in Louisiana, organic is a lonely and challenging proposition, but they're up for it.

By Dan Sullivan
February 22, 2005

As the tour bus rolls out of New Orleans, following the Mississippi River southwest to Plaquemines Parish at the southern tip of Louisiana, we watch “My Father’s Garden,” a brilliant documentary interweaving stories of one farmer’s quest for a sustainable future with another’s tragic downfall and the hands of conventional agriculture.

That the latter was a citrus farmer whose zeal for dawning age of chemical farming cost him his life (or so the documentary implies) make the film and our destination all the more poignant. We’re on our way to L’Hoste Citrus, where Lester and Linda L’Hoste have been farming since 1981, organically so since 1995. Situated in the country’s northern most, and somewhat precarious, region for commercial citrus—they’ve been wiped out three times in less than a quarter century by killing frosts—the couple grows 2,000-plus trees of grapefruit, kumquats, lemons, limes, mandarins, navels, satsumas, tangelos and tangerines, selling through farmers markets, a couple of co-ops, on-farm sales, a local grocery store chain, mail order, and to a local organic juice bar.

“Not everything, even though it is organic, is sold as organic,” Lester L’Hoste explains. “We don’t have enough customers to sell it all as organic.”

L’Hoste maintains an off-farm job in the oil business, which has helped to pay the bills when Mother Nature has been less than cooperative. “We brought the property in July, and in December we lost it all,” Linda L’Hoste recalls of that first killing frost that took three years to recover from.

The couple’s two sons grew up working on the farm.

“They’d say ‘Hey, Dad. Our friends are all out playing and we’re working,” Lester L’Hoste recants as he begins our tour in the farm’s packing shed. “When our eldest son graduated high school, I made him run the farm for a year.”

That son now works as an electrical engineer and lives on the farm property with his wife and young child. Like so many new parents, Linda L’Hoste says, the couple is taking a growing interest in the health advantages of organic. Another son is now studying police work at Louisiana State University (LSU).

L’Hoste says he doesn’t know if either of his boys will want to take over the orchards when the time comes. “Maybe not, because they know what hard work it is,” he quips as he leads us out of the packing house into a deep sea of green and orange, tempting satsumas bending the branches of trees bordering both sides of the pathway. (Citrus gets picked at it ripens, and L’Hoste won’t let a piece of fruit leave his farm before it’s time.)

As a certified organic farmer, L’Hoste is a rare breed in Louisiana; that he’s an organic citrus grower makes him even more of an anomaly. Whether or not the economic benefits of growing organically played a major role in his conversion, the banter on this unseasonably sunny and warm January morning turns more toward soil health, balanced ecosystems, and the relative wisdom of spraying poison on food.

“We’re limited, in growing organic citrus, as to what we can spray,” L’Hoste says. It’s not uncommon for a conventional farmer fighting a particular pest to spray every two weeks, he says, “and people are eating that.”

Not that growing citrus organically is easy. This year, a thorn in L’Hoste’s side has been leaf-footed bug or leptoglossus phyllopus (see What’s bugging Lester), which pierces the wall of the thin-skinned satsuma and spoils the fruit.

L’Hoste found that while leguminous cover crops such as cow peas are good for the soil, they also tended to attract the leaf hoppers. So next year he plans to plant them outside the orchard as a trap crop.

After years of experimenting, L’Hoste found water to be the most-effective, and the cheapest, tool for protecting his fragile trees from dangerous frost. Before a freeze, trees are sprayed with a fine mist of water. The frozen thin coat of ice then acts as an insulating barrier. “It’s a risky procedure,” says L’Hoste, explaining that too much ice build-up can break the fragile trees. “Or, if the water shuts off, it will super cool the trees so that they’ll be much colder on the inside than the ambient temperature outside, and the trees will probably perish.”

L’Hoste has also experimented with grafting different cold-resistant varieties onto various hardy root stock. He hand prunes each of his trees meticulously.

Fruits of their labor

“When the trees are in blossom, I prune,” saysL’Hoste, adding that he’s developed pollen allergies over the years because of the intense environment. Right now, even after the bulk of harvest season has passed, many of the lush-green trees appear thick with fruit. It’s not hard to imagine the orchard in full bloom (particularly for L’Hoste).

“It’s overwhelming after eight hours in here; it will knock you down,” he says. “There will be so many honeybees in here it will sound like a plane is landing. Every flower has a honeybee; where they come from I don’t know.

“Citrus only produces fruit from one-year-old growth,” L’Hoste explains, bending down and grabbing hold of a young branch to show us what he’s talking about. “There’s a lot of one-year-old growth in these trees.”

Too much fruit on a tree means smaller fruit, he says. Only 10 to 15 percent of each tree’s blossoms will bear fruit and “that’s more than enough,” he says. The rest of the blossoms simply fall to the ground. “In the spring, the blossoms that fall on the ground actually look like snow cover,” Linda L’Hoste offers in a follow-up interview.

Lester says sometimes he’ll spray his trees with a little fish emulsion to give them a boost right before they bloom. He runs a tiller under the trees to keep the native nutgrass down, calling the technique “cheaper and easier” than the conventional method of dousing the orchard floor with an herbicide cocktail. “[Tilling] puts a huge amount of organic matter in the soil,” L’Hoste explains.

“We’ve got about four percent organic matter in our soil; we’ve sampled it over the years. Can you imagine how much 4 percent is in an acre of ground, how much organic matter that is, especially down here in this part of the South where it’s so warm?

“Conventional orchards have less than one-tenth of 1 percent; they never get more…They’ve made the soil almost sterile to everything but citrus roots.”

A conventional citrus grower will typically hit his orchard with a pre-emergent herbicide in early spring, L’Hoste says, following that up several times with an herbicide such as Roundup. “They’ll do that until it looks like a desert underneath the tree; that’s the typical conventional way to control grass.”

Thus thwarted, the dead debris lays down on top of the soil, eventually evaporating as carbon dioxide, L’Hoste says. “There’s not a whole lot left in the soil to come up and pull that into the soil—you’ve destroyed all that.”

As for trees themselves, conventional sprays are typically systemic, he says. “You spray one side and it moves through the whole tree,” he explains. “You eat some of that stuff.”

The effects on mixing all of these of herbicides, pesticides, miticides and fungicides has never been studied, L’Hoste says, offering his own take on growing food for the eating public. “Our mission here is that we produce finest quality and safest quality piece of fruit we can give to our customers, who we work for.”

L’Hoste prides himself on the appearance of the fruit that comes out of the orchard as much as the taste. But since he doesn’t use an arsenal of chemicals, a small amount of his fruit—though it tastes just fine—becomes blemished. “We have an insignificant amount of mite damage in the orchard,” he says. “We sell those as juice oranges, so we have a market for them.”

What’s bugging Lester?

One pest that still gives citrus farmer Lester L’Hoste fits is the leaf-footed bug (Leptoglossus phyllopus), which pierces the skin of his prize satsumas, causing the fruit to rot.

Leaf-footed bug
Photo courtesy of U. of Florida

Lester has had some level of success with jumping spiders—you can tell one’s been in the area because there are leaf bug parts everywhere, he says—and is working to create hospital habitat for the arachnid avengers. If you know of an effective control for leaf-footed bug, Lester would love to hear from you:

When he began farming organically, L’Hoste bought and released a-million-and-a-half ladybugs—as well as lacewings—to control aphids, white flies and mites. The ladybugs remain prolific, he says, while the lacewings don’t appear to have established themselves quite so vigorously.

While the nut grass has been trimmed back for harvest season, L’Hoste says he’ll now let it grow to knee-high. “You need a place for beneficials to stay,” he explains.

Some time ago, L’Hoste noticed something curious in his orchard: whenever he saw a jumping spider, he would invariably see “leaf bug parts scattered everywhere.” So now he’s trying to create habitat for the native spiders. “I’ve been looking for ways to propagate those in the orchard,” he says.

He’s also built bat houses, but so far the bats have not come.

As someone who has made his own transition from conventional to organic agriculture, L’Hoste has an interesting vantage point.

“Since we’ve been certified organic, we can’t even find a white fly in here,” he says. “Before, they were a big problem that really cost us money. Many growers around here have problems with them.”

L’Hoste concurs with farmers on the tour that when you spray for a pest you usually end up with secondary pest problems. “And the more we sprayed the worse it got,” he says. “I was spending money and spinning my wheels.”

“[Entomoligist] Seth Johnson and his crew from LSU are trying to figure out why I don’t have any mite problems,” he says with a wry smile. At their research station a few miles down the road, they had so many mites they couldn’t even see the fruit.

“I couldn’t put finger on why I don’t and neither could they. Their spending a lot of money to control these mites and I’m doing nothing—except saying ‘amen.’”

And here’s another curiosity that has set L”Hoste apart from some of his conventional neighbors. He’s had up to 700 thrips per blossom on his trees and suffered no damage, despite being told by LSU AgCenter researchers that the trees would not bear fruit. “The trees are loaded with fruit; they didn’t damage it a bit. That kind of blew that theory out of the water.”

L’Hoste agrees that the secret might be held in the resilience built into the organic system.

Despite such promises, Louisiana’s organic farming community remains a drop in an ocean of conventional agriculture, L’Hoste says, and that means little or no research dollars for investigating organic systems.

“As matter of fact, I’ve gone to them and asked them to help me with certain things—thrips, leaf bugs, ants. I’ve gotten no help—zero. They said they didn’t have any money at the time to devote to organic farming. All of their money is coming from the chemical companies.”

L’Hoste was recently interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered and told the story of how he approached a friend and university ag researcher with his discovery about jumping spiders. “He said, ‘This is how it works. The first time I put a pesticide out there I kill every spider in that orchard, so as far as putting money into it, it isn’t going to happen.’”

So L’Hoste keeps plugging along, gathering support and information where he can and, for the most part, solving his own problems—including those of the four-legged variety.

“Deer are the biggest wildlife problem, without a doubt,” he says, offering that even a double fence didn’t keep bambi out of one particularly problematic section of the farm. But a dog did the trick. Enter Laddie, a border collie rescued last September from the local animal shelter. With two geese to keep him company, Laddie now patrols the back forty. “They get along good,” Linda L’Hoste says.

Still, some fruit gets eaten. Lester L’Hoste explains that each of the various nocturnal diners in his orchard leaves its own telltale sign:

  • “A raccoon pulls (the orange) off the tree and drops it on the ground.”
  • “A possum eats the fruit and leaves the skin.” (Above.)
  • “A deer eats everything, skin and all…and usually part of the stem.”

Then there’s He Who Shall Be Nameless, an alligator that lives in the irrigation pond. Where this critter is concerned, it’s not the oranges L’Hoste is worried about. One evening as dusk was settling on the orchard, he recalls, the stealth reptile quietly sidled up to the tractor. “It scared me half to death,” L’Hoste recalls, a mixture of humor and panic in his voice. “It sprayed me with water and I almost stepped on it.”

Rabbits, which find the knee-high orchard grass perfectly hospitable habitat, have also presented problems, particularly since they have shown a penchant for the spaghetti tubing that connects the irrigation hose to the misters. Attach the misters directly to the hose—problem solved.

Different types of oranges have good years and bad years, L’Hoste says, adding that one banner crop is typically balanced by a sluggish one. For instance, this was a not-so-great year for satsumas (complicated by leaf-footed bug damage) but a great year for navels, due in large part to a mild winter (in fact, they are still picking navels when I catch up with L’Hoste for a follow-up interview a few weeks after Valentine’s Day).

“Turned out to be great year for navels, and we didn’t have any weather cold enough to knock the fruit out of the trees,” he says.

L’Hoste pauses at neighboring navel orange trees loaded with fruit. Though they are the same variety, one tree towers over the other. “It doesn’t produce as much fruit but it comes in earlier,” he says of the variety. “We don’t make any money on the leaves and wood, we make it on the fruit.”

The trees’ varying heights L’Hoste attributes to different rootstock. One is ‘Swingle’ (the taller tree) and the other is Caruso (the shorter tree). It’s the same scion and the rootstocks are different, so you have a different tree—and there are thousands and thousands of root stocks that can affect quality, size, taste, all of these things. The varieties are still true but many things have changed.”

Sponsor Box
Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG)
Practical Tools and Solutions for Sustainable Family Farms
The 14th Annual Southern SAWG Conference
Hilton New Orleans Airport Hotel
January 20-23, 2005
The Mission of Southern SAWG is to empower and inspire farmers, individuals, and communities in the South to create an agricultural system that is ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just, and humane. Because sustainable solutions depend on the involvement of the entire community, Southern SAWG is committed to including all persons in the South without bias.

L’Hoste has given our group carte blanche to consume as much food as it can while in his orchard—and sacks to fill with as much as we care to pay for later. As we munch, pick, listen, take pictures, and take notes, L-Hoste explains the marketable qualities of his product. The criterion are pretty simple, he says as he peels back the thick skin of a navel orange, working a segment of the succulent fruit free and plopping it into his mouth: “It has to be perfect or it doesn’t leave the farm.”

Since this was on off year for satsumas and the navel crop has been spread out over time, L’Hoste has gotten by with the help of a college student who has been working for him over the past several years. In previous seasons, he hasn’t relied on migrant farm workers but on a home-schooling couple—with 13 children of their own, plus one adopted off the streets of New Orleans—that share his Christian values.

“It’s a blessing to them to make some good money to get the things they like to buy,” he says. “They let me know that I pay them well. We feed them while they are here, and it’s a blessing for both of us. They get to come in for a few hours, make a little bit of money and then go home and study, so it works out.”

Dan Sullivan is senior editor at The New Farm.