Farmer Spotlight: Herb Young with Squeeze Citrus

Herb Young with a grapefruit tree. Photo via Herb Young.

Tucked away in the back roads and woods outside Thomasville, GA, there are rows of orange, grapefruit, lemon, and lime trees surrounded by lush vegetation rarely seen on conventional farms.

Herb Young started Squeeze Citrus after years of working in the agrochemical industry. Initially starting as a search for a hobby and an interest in the citrus trees that grow in his backyard, Young came upon regenerative organic agriculture and set out to start one of the very few regenerative citrus farms.

Young said that, like most growers, his immediate goal is financial security, but that his farm has become so much more than that.

“My farm has turned into a passion to prove that regenerative practices return a nutrient density to our food that has been robbed by conventional farming methods. Industrial farming sterilizes the soil and then attempts to replace the vibrant symbiotic relationship of plants and their biome with a synthetic system of tillage, pesticides and fertilizer”.

One of Young’s main goals is providing scientific evidence that regenerative practices are not only possible, but that soil and crops can thrive and become more nutrient dense with these practices.

He is currently working with the University of Florida on regenerative versus conventional citrus trials and with the University of Georgia on trials to manage citrus leafminer damage organically. He has also received a grant from the USDA for compost evaluation trials, and contributed to a breakthrough in identifying the mode of action for an algae product with Enlightened Soil corporation.

One of the most unique practices Young uses is planting 10 different species of cover crops in the fall, and then a different set in the spring. These cover crops cover the grove from trunk to trunk. This makes his farm look strikingly different from conventional citrus groves where herbicide is used to prevent weeds and keep the ground between trees bare.

Along with cover crops, in order to maintain successful regenerative practices he applies microbial amendments and compost, performs regular leaf sap analysis tests to understand the trees’ nutritional needs, and more.

According to Young, “Research has found that 40% of all the nutrients that plants generate through photosynthesis are excreted out of the roots to feed microbes… Cover crops provide habitat for microbes and fertility to my citrus as they break down. I had to prove this was happening.”

On this basis, Young kicked off a large, replicated trial to compare conventional and regenerative growing practices and has been sampling the DNA in the soil for three years.

In those three years, he has found that the microbial diversity in the soil has exploded to over a thousand species. Influenced by this, more beneficial insects have appeared that help manage harmful insects, disease symptoms typical in citrus production have not appeared in the trees, and soil compaction is virtually nonexistent.

Around the bases of the trees throughout the farm, a soil penetrometer can be pushed all the way down to the handles with little effort. This indicates an uncompacted soil common in soils with high organic matter.

In the conventional versus regenerative research trials, Young notes that it’s much harder to control weed populations around the conventional trees. Unless the conventional trees are sprayed with herbicides constantly, weeds take over the ground.

Due to the cover crops around the regenerative trees, he says, “The living soil stays almost weed free. I’m not saying it is easy to manage. I constantly hand clip and mow cover crops. In the end, the reward is trees lush and vigorous and hopefully nutrient-dense fruit soon for which I can find a unique rewarding market.”

When asked if there was any message he would like to spread about his experiences, he said, “After a career in the world of conventional agriculture and now enthusiastically living in the regenerative organic world, the gulf between them saddens me. There is a great divide of mistrust, criticism and even attacks from both sides of the organic versus industrial agriculture worlds.

“Yet, their goal is the same: to feed humanity with nutritious food.  The loss of topsoil and organic matter at an alarming rate has led to the estimate that we only have 60 seasons left until all our soils are unusable. We now have examples of large-scale commercial farming operations successfully converting to regenerative practices and restoring soil. In the south, they’re even growing high yielding cotton with no fertilizer, plant growth regulators and minimal insecticides.

“It’s quite a revelation that the crop-soil ecosystem of creation grows a vibrant plant just like the trees in the forest without our help. I’ve learned it takes a little faith and patience to see it happen.”

More information about Herb Young’s journey with Squeeze Citrus can be found on Instagram at @squeeze_citrus_llc, where he posts regularly about operations on his farm. Additionally, he was featured in a webinar by Biome Makers inc. which can be viewed on YouTube.

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