Resurgence of Gulf tung industry has local ties

Published 7:00 am Saturday, September 21, 2019

By Skip Rigney

hurricane ended the tung oil industry in Pearl River County in 1969. Ironically, a hurricane last year has sparked a renewed interest in the cultivation of tung trees in the Florida Panhandle.

In another intriguing but separate connection, scientists in Pearl River County have helped increase the likelihood that Florida’s renewed tung industry will be successful.

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Last month in a series commemorating the 50th anniversary of Hurricane Camille, I devoted a column to the storm’s destruction of Pearl River County’s tung nut orchards, which, in some years, yielded millions of dollars in revenues.

However the hurricane wasn’t the only problem. By the 1960s, competition from foreign sources, synthetic alternatives, and occasional damages from late freezes were squeezing producers in the Tung Belt from Florida to Texas.

According to local farmer John Corley, the last tung oil mill in the U.S., located in Bogalusa, closed in 1973.

Corley was involved in a local resurgence in the industry in the 1990s. Hundreds of acres were planted and a mill opened in the Gum Pond community.

However, again, foreign competition, late freezes, and damages, this time from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, thwarted the restart.

But now a tung revival is underway in a different part of the once-thriving Tung Belt. In 2011, Greg and Marnie Frost launched the Gulf Coast Tung Oil company in Tallahassee, Florida. Not only did the Frosts plant tung trees, they opened a mill to process nuts into oil. But, the risks of late freeze damage remained. Was there a solution?

In the 1950s and 1960s the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted tung-related research across the Tung Belt. Those efforts included the development of later-blooming cultivated varieties, or cultivars.

One cultivar that showed particular promise was evaluated in the late 1960s and early 1970s by USDA scientist Dr. James Spiers, who retired from the Thad Cochran Southern Horticultural Laboratory in Poplarville in 2011.

The USDA terminated its active tung nut research after the demise of the U.S. industry in the early 1970s, but the TCSHL still maintains the most extensive collection of tung cultivars in the U.S. The laboratory provided Gulf Coast Tung Oil with the late-blooming ‘Spiers’ cultivar.

When I spoke to Greg Frost, he said this past spring provided an interesting test. “We had a hard freeze after most of our trees had blossomed. Nearly a 100 percent loss. But our three acres of ‘Spiers’ bloomed two or three weeks later and had no loss.”

Mr. Frost also told me another weather-related story. Last October, Hurricane Michael tore a swath through the rich timberland of the Florida Panhandle.

Fortunately, the Frosts’ orchards with mature trees were far enough east they didn’t experience extreme winds, and the orchards nearer the worst winds had young trees flexible enough that they escaped damage.

But the owners of over a million acres of timber in Florida weren’t so lucky. What might they do to make their land profitable within five to ten years?

“About 30 people showed up in March for a town hall to discuss tung oil at the Jackson County, Florida, Extension Office. One big issue will be if they get help removing the downed timber, so they can plant tung trees,” said Mr. Frost.

Perhaps not all hurricanes are bad for the tung industry.