Though Georgia"s pomegranate industry is in its infancy, a group of growers is working to increase production to meet future demand.
In September, the Seven Rivers Resource Conservation and Development Area Council in Baxley, Ga., received a $150,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to purchase machinery to separate arils.
The machinery from Rishon-Lezion, Israel-based Juran Metal Works Ltd., will be used by members of the Georgia Pomegranate Growers Association to separate the edible fruit from the skin, said Eugene Dyal, the council"s coordinator.
"It got to the point to where the de-seeding process needed to move quicker or the industry was going to die," Dyal said. "The industry couldn"t do the deseeding by hand. In a feasibility study, predictions are that pomegranates would be in the range of the blueberry industry in terms of profitability. The blueberry industry in Georgia has done very well."
The Alma-based association"s 60 members grow on about 30 acres with additional trees in University of Georgia test plots and varieties being studied on 15 acres of land provided by Appling County in a Baxley industrial park.
John Tanner, association vice president and a blueberry grower who markets his fruit through MBG Marketing, Grand Junction, Mich.-based sales arm of the Michigan Blueberry Growers Association, grows pomegranates on two 40-year-old trees in his backyard and his neighbor grows on 80-year-old trees.
He said the university is studying the older varieties to see which ones would grow best commercially in the region"s humidity, which produces cosmetically unmarketable fruit.
Georgia"s pomegranate harvesting typically begins in mid- to late September and usually finishes by mid-December.
Blueberry juice processor Southern Press and Packing plans to house the aril processing machinery and Tanner said a packaging line connected to the skin separator could produce vacuum sealed clamshells of fresh arils while the plant would process pomegranate juice from other fruit.
About 20% of a tree"s fruit can be marketed as fresh and tests on 4-year-old trees show the state"s groves could produce up to 15,000 pounds per-acre, similar to California production, Tanner said.
Tanner said MBG, co-owner of Salinas, Calif.-based Naturipe Farms LLC, has expressed interest in marketing the fruit but wants to wait until growers produce larger volumes.
"There seems to be a lot of interest, but right now, we are in a learning curve," he said. "The interest is more ‘bring it to us and we will go from there." It"s hard to sell something if you don"t have the volume to supply the demand a buyer wants. It"s getting to the point to where we need to have something marketable and then supply it to the markets."
Unlike blueberries, pomegranates can grow on soil used for soybeans, cotton and field corn.
Growers could use the same production facilities for Georgia"s late spring and summer berry production, Tanner said.
Lower freight costs could also help keep Georgia production competitive with California"s, he said.
Tanner began harvesting Sept. 23.