Carl Heatwole of Olar is the classic example of a farmer not putting all his eggs in one basket.

A dairy farmer and a row crop farmer, Heatwole perhaps is the only farmer in Bamberg County to try his hand at something rather unusual for South Carolina.

In fact, Heatwole is most likely the only person in Bamberg County to have a citrus grove.

"I had an interest ever since I was a boy," Heatwole said. "My mom gave me a seed, a grapefruit. I grew a grapefruit tree out of it, but of course it did not survive in Virginia."

Heatwole's love of "growing things" continued into his adulthood.

About 12 years ago, he attended a Southeast Citrus Society meeting out of curiosity. There he found out about varieties of cold-hardy citrus that were grown in north Florida and thought he could grow them in this area.

After a lot of research and networking with other citrus farmers, Heatwole selected the Satsuma mandarin orange tree for his groves.

"At that point I contacted a nursery in Alabama who imported trees from Louisiana," he said. "I just had an interest in growing things, but I have a particular interest in citrus."

"All kinds of people made fun of me, but my wife was supportive," he said. "I tried it, but I had a lot of failures. Clemson is not into citrus and the University of Georgia is not into citrus. The University of Florida is into citrus, but not into his kind of citrus."

The Satsuma orange grows in China and Japan and has been in the United States since the 1800s. The fruit thrives north of Ocala, Florida, and along the coastal regions of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

The fruit is seedless, tender and easy to peel. It is considered quite tasty and very sweet. The fruit is so tender that it cannot be picked; it has to be snipped using a pair of scissors.

"It is too tender to ship well," he said. "They are meant for eating and not for shipping."

Heatwole’s trees are grafted onto a hardy root stock -- Trifoliate orange -- which makes them go dormant in winter.

"It gives them a cold advantage that way," he said, noting the tree has about a 5-degree cold advantage due to the stock.

The trees bloom in late March or early April, and the fruit is picked from September through December. So the challenge is to keep the trees alive during the coldest months of the year, Heatwole said.

"You have to have a system for frost and freeze protection," he said. "I use water on the ones planted outdoors. I put a wrap barrier around some of them."

"I have a lot of trees I don't do anything to," he said. "They are protected by a building or by other trees."

He also said he planted trees along a body of water to mimic the lake effect of the Niagara peninsula and Ontario.

"Because of the heat of the Great Lakes, they can grow a lot of fruit way north of normal," he said.

Not willing to take a chance with his grove, Heatwole felt he needed to better protect his trees. He spoke with representatives from an Auburn University Research Station and learned of a greenhouse method they were using. He decided to give it a try.

The trees are planted close together like a hedge and are under a greenhouse.

Heatwole estimates he has about 100 orange trees, a dozen grapefruit trees and four lemon trees. He even has a banana tree and some kumquats.

Heatwole does sell the crop on an individual retail basis.

He uses some fertilizer on his trees and does not need to spray them often. He has had some problems with citrus leaf miner, an insect that mines its way through the trees' leaves, but fortunately has been spared the worst.

Heatwole said growing citrus this far north is not for everybody.

"It is hard work, it is expensive; to me it was kind of a hobby," he said. 

As he walks through his greenhouse, Heatwole knows his trees.

He points out one with naval oranges.

"Here is a pomelo," he said. "It is in the grapefruit family. They get as big as a soccer ball."

"These are Minneola tangelos," he said. "Those are good for juice."

Citrus grower and Lowcountry Fruit Growers Society President Darren Sheriff said the number of citrus farmers like Heatwole is increasing in the state.

"With the push of folks being afraid of what chemicals are being sprayed on their food and the hybridizing that is being performed on citrus to develop a good-tasting yet cold-hardy piece of fruit, it should encourage people to try their hand at it," he said.

"Personally, I have probably talked to at least 1,000 people through garden clubs, societies, e-mails and other events that I do and gotten many of them to try growing at least one tree."

Sheriff said while he could not provide local numbers on the number of citrus growers. But in Charleston County when the citrus disease Citrus Greening developed in 2009, the Department of Plant Industries and U.S. Department of Agriculture came and inspected 3,033 citrus trees in that one county alone.

The number is believed to be the same in Beaufort County.

But as would be expected, citrus is not a significant commercial player in the state due to cold temperatures.

"In the early days of Charleston, there were attempts at citrus groves, but due to some very severe winters, it was abandoned," Sheriff said. "As a commercial crop, it is not as profitable because of the chance of killing it or at least knocking the tree back so severely that it would be a couple of years for it to be productive again."

But he says it is possible with patience, perseverance and hard work.

"The patience comes in when growing them from a small tree," he said. "From seed it can take a good many years to produce fruit. Depending on how big of a tree you get, it could be sometime before you get fruit."

"Perseverance comes when the tree is temporarily knocked back or defoliated and it takes several years for it to produce fruit again," Sheriff said. "Hard work means protecting it when it gets really cold, fertilizing it properly, watering it and making sure it gets enough sunshine."

Eutawville's Pate Prosser, 88, has been growing citrus crops for the past 20 years from his lake community home.

It is a hobby that goes back to his boyhood roots of growing up on a farm in the Vox Community, not far from Johnsonville.

Prosser said he had four grapefruit trees this year -- both white and pink -- that produced much fruit. He estimates about 25 bushels per tree.

Prosser said he was introduced to growing citrus because of his sister-in-law, who had a few trees.

"She sent me about 40 seeds," Prosser recalled. "I only got two to come up."

But Prosser said he did not let the poor showing dishearten him.

"It took me 13 years to make my first grapefruit," he said. "I leaned as I went along."

In addition to grapefruit, he also has two young orange trees, but they still do not have fruit.

"It takes a good while to get them to bear," he said.

For Prosser, the ability to grow citrus was downplayed by those who knew.

"I was told they won't make nothing," he said. "The next they said is that you won't live long enough to pick them. "I am 88 and I started picking them in 2013."

Prosser said protecting the crop from the cold is the most challenging aspect of growing citrus.

But he has found ways.

One is putting the tree in a trash can.

"The secret to growing them is to get a white trash can and to cut the bottom out of it," he said. "It is important to get as light a color as you can."

Prosser said a black trash can "will bring the tree out of dormancy."

"The next freeze will end up killing it," he said.

He said once the tree is three or four inches in diameter, the trash can can be removed.

He also said three or four gallons of water should also be placed in the trash can for a period of time until the tree is mature enough.

"It takes a lot of water to grow citrus," he said.

He also has some English walnut trees, which he was also told would be a waste of his time.

"They say the English walnut won't grow here, but they will," he said, noting he had English walnuts this year but could not enjoy them. "The squirrels got every one. They like them better than I do."

While he has had success growing the citrus and has proven many wrong, Prosser said at age 88, "I am not able to take care of them like I want to."

As a result, he is looking to sell the land with his citrus orchard.

He is confident a new buyer will continue the orchard.

Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD.

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Business Reporter

Gene Zaleski is a reporter/staff writer with The Times and Democrat.

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