Louisiana citrus farmers brace for saltwater intrusion

Projections show the saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico continues to push up the Mississippi River in the coming weeks, threatening the drinking water of thousands of people in Louisiana.

Farmers are also scrambling for ways to save their produce.

Commissioner for the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry Dr. Mike Strain said Plaquemines Parish is the heartbeat of Louisiana’s citrus industry. He added saltwater can have an effect on citrus plants at any stage.

“It’s about a 10 million dollar direct you know if you’re talking about the citrus and the fruit and add to that another 10 to 15 million dollars a year in the citrus plants themselves. So it’s a very big part of the agricultural economy,” Dr. Strain said.

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Citrus fruit hang from a tree

Multiple citrus fruit are hanging from branches at a nursery. (Fox News)

Saltwater can start to take effect on citrus plants causing drooping or yellow leaves. Leaving farmers with moments to save their plant.

Star Nursery owner Joseph Ranatza says he has never seen a saltwater threat this bad before. He said he is unsure how his citrus orders across the country will be affected. 

Ranatza’s nursery uses water that is from the Mississippi River. With the threat of saltwater looming, he has redesigned his nursery and has moved away from watering the entire plant.

Joseph Ranatza walks through nursery

Star Nursery owner Joseph Ranatza walks through his citrus nursery (Fox News)

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“The plant can absorb more salt through the root system than it can overhead,” Ranatza said. “The salt will burn the foliage of the plant and that’s what will kill the plant itself.” 

Ranatza now gives the smallest amount of water possible to the base of the plant. Running plastic tubes on top of the plant to slowly drip water into the pot.

“Since we’ve had the intrusion, we put everything under drip irrigation. It’s only a drop at a time that you put on for about 15 to 20 minutes. And we do that every other day just to keep the plant alive,” Ranatza said. 

Citrus plants watered by drip irrigation

Multiple citrus pots are placed together with black watering tubes laying over the top (Fox News)

The most recent timeline from the New Orleans District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shows the saltwater will reach Belle Chasse on October 27th. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said they are prepared for this issue to go into early January.

Dr. Strain said this could be a long-term problem for farmers.

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“They would lose their livelihood,” Dr. Strain said. “If you look at the length of this you know until we get sufficient rainfall to get increased flow down the river it’s going to be with us.”

Dr. Strain said farmers should consistently check the salinity levels in the water they are giving their plants. And advised diluting the saltwater with freshwater they may have stored.

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