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Sugar-Sweet Satsumas

Satsuma. Tangerine, clementine or orange?

None of the above. It’s a mandarin, explains Jeremy Sessions. And he should know. His family has been growing satsumas for 25 years near Mobile, Alabama.

A multigenerational operation, Sessions Farms owns 3,500 satsuma trees, planted across several orchards. Their average annual yield is 600,000 pounds, with bumper crops as high as 750,000 pounds. This is especially impressive since harvesting satsumas is labor-intensive. Each piece of fruit is plucked by hand. It takes nearly 20 people — working 15-hour days — to pick, grade and ship fruit daily during the three-month season. These high labor costs mean the farm needs to get a premium price, which takes a premium product.

To ensure the highest quality, the Sessions’ operation is certified, meeting strict food safety requirements. This requires special facilities to properly store the fragile satsuma.

Four years ago, their business had outgrown their warehouse, and they were renting addi-tional storage. In order to maintain an A+ rating, they knew they had to expand their facilities. 

Growing With Alabama Ag Credit

“We either had to grow or get out of the business,” explains Sessions. “Alabama Ag Credit helped us take that next step. They make borrowing money as easy as you can.”

Sessions Farms secured a construction loan to build a 6,500-square-foot warehouse. It isn’t just an ordinary warehouse. The outside walls of the structure are built with special insulated panels. The panels allow any part of the warehouse, or all of it, to become a cooler. All that Sessions needs to do is put up another interior wall, then install refrigeration in the newly created space. And voilà, they have another cooler.

“Without Alabama Ag Credit, we couldn’t have expanded,” Sessions says. “Cultivating a relationship with our banker is important to us. Alabama Ag has been our partner for more than 25 years.”

Adapting to Changing Markets

Not only does the family grow satsumas, they raise nearly every type of fruit and vegetable on their 1,800 acres. Other specialties include peaches, watermelons, sweet corn and pecans. 

You can find their produce at farmers’ markets in Mobile four days a week during the summer. Or you can shop at their warehouse year-round.

Sessions explains their crops not only change with the season, they change to meet consumers’ tastes too. “We adapt and grow what’s popular,” he says. “Variety has been key to our success.”

They’ve also changed their business model to meet market needs. Sessions says there will always be a produce stand at the farm, but their focus is wholesale, not retail.

Currently, their largest customers are public school systems in Alabama and Mississippi. They’re also expanding to other markets across the region. 

Making Farming a Family Affair

During every harvest — whether it’s peach, watermelon or satsuma season —it’s all hands on deck.

“It doesn’t matter what your regular job is, everyone jumps in to do whatever is needed. We never wear just one hat,” Sessions says.

From March through July, it takes the whole family, plus extra hands, working seven days a week to keep up with demand. Family members include Sessions’ dad, Art; his uncle, David;  and cousins Adam and Blake.

The only time they take a break is in August and at Christmastime. Even  then, there’s always something to do.

“We’re either getting ready to plant, planting, spraying, mowing or picking,” Sessions says.

So, what is his favorite crop? He’ll tell you, “whatever’s in season. We’re truly a year-round operation.”