It’s a “13-Months-a-Year Job”
From the first time John Neighbors ever tasted the sweet citrus fruit of a satsuma orange, he knew he wanted to grow some on his farm just outside of Alexander City.
"I got a good taste of them and decided, well anything that tastes this good, I need some of them," Neighbors recalled about the first time he tasted a satsuma while touring the Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center in Fairhope.
Citrus fruit is not usually found growing as far north as Coosa and Tallapoosa County, the counties where Neighbors’ farm sits right on the line, but Neighbors decided to take a chance and try growing some of the tasty fruit. In 1993, Neighbors planted three satsuma trees in his front yard and did surprisingly well with them.
"There’s nothing like having satsuma trees close to your front door," Neighbors said. "It’s a good way to wake up in the morning. It takes about three to get your quench satisfied."
From the three satsuma trees in his yard, the venture grew and moved onto his farm located off Highway 259.
In 2000, Neighbors planted one 250-foot row of satsuma trees in high tunnels on his farm. When that was a success, he went back the next year and planted another 250 foot row And in 2002, he went back again and planted yet another 250 foot row of satsumas. He also decided to dip into growing even more citrus fruit, so he added seven Meyer lemon trees to grow among the satsumas.
"I have covers over the satsumas I put on the first part of December when I get through harvesting in October," Neighbors explained. "A satsuma is cold hardy, down to about 18 degrees. A lot people think that if it gets to freezing, it will kill them, but it doesn’t."
"Satsumas have been a very enjoyable part of my farming here," said Neighbors.
The Meyer lemon trees will produce about 300 pounds of lemons per tree and Neighbors already has a ready market for fresh citrus.
"Some people want them before they start turning yellow," Neighbors said. "They will buy them green."
Neighbors, who will turn 80 years old in September, grows much more than just satsumas and lemons on his farm. He has a variety of fruits and vegetables growing all over his farm: beans, corn, okra, peaches, plums, figs, cucumbers, muscadines, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, kiwis, blueberries, persimmons, squash, peas, clementines, limes and more.
"It’s about a 13-months-a-year job," Neighbors joked about the hard work that goes into growing the freshest fruits and vegetables.
He sells most of his fruits and vegetables straight off his farm. People will stop by, many of them heading to Lake Martin for the weekend, and pick up some of the fresh produce.
"I pick or you pick; it’s the same price," Neighbors said. "But you would be surprised at the number of people that like to bring their family up to the farm and pick it themselves."
"When I sell anything I want it to be number-one quality," he said.
He usually starts his day around 8:30 and doesn’t leave the farm until the last customer is gone sometime in the late afternoon.
On Saturdays, Neighbors sells his produce at the Farmer’s Market in Alexander City, which runs from June to the first of August.
"I could sell everything I produce right here at the farm, but I feel committed to help my city out," Neighbors said. "I helped get the farmers market started so I feel obligated to continue to support it."
Neighbors has been involved in farming most of his life, but it has not always been his primary source of income. He worked for the United States Postal Service as a rural letter carrier for 32 years. He later served eight years as the county commissioner, while also serving on the board of the Alabama Farmers Federation. Prior to his job as a rural letter carrier, Neighbors served in the United States Air Force with the 93rd Air Refueling Squadron during the Korean War.
Neighbors was a hay and cattle farmer having 150 brood cows and 125 acres in Coastal Bermuda hay while he was a letter carrier.
In 1954, Neighbors planted his first fruits – peaches and plums. Then in 1969 he bought the land where his farm is currently located from his aunt and uncle. At the time, the 107-acre spread was covered in pines and scrub timber. Once the land was cleared off, Neighbors planted six acres of blueberries.
"I decided six acres was too many blueberries," Neighbors said. "So I rooted up two of the acres and planted other crops."
"That was the day before antioxidants in blueberries were known about," Neighbors explained. "Now I have gone back to almost six acres of blueberries.
"Since then I have continuously had blueberries, peaches, plums, nectarines and blackberries. Now I am in the process of planting an acre of pomegranates because that’s going to be your next health food; it’s very high in antioxidants."
This year Neighbors has a half acre of pomegranates planted on his farm. He is also in the process of producing about 280 pomegranate plants to finish out his acre.
"This is my passion," Neighbors said as he steps back and looks proudly at his farm. "I just love watching various things grow."
Mary-Glenn Smith is an AFC intern.