American-made tung oil continues resurgence

Published 7:00 am Saturday, April 24, 2021

By Skip Rigney

You may have noticed them in late March. Pretty white flowers with reddish pink centers on trees or bushes from head high up to thirty feet tall. They were along roadways, overgrown fence rows, and even in thick woods and underbrush.

Each spring the blossoms don’t last but a week or two, but they are a reminder of a crop that dominated the economy of Pearl River County for over three decades from the 1930s through the 1960s. They are the blooms on tung trees.

In August of 2019 I wrote two columns about the era of tung nut farming in our county. Actually, the pots of gold at the end of the rainbow are not the nuts, but the oil that can be extracted from those nuts. Ask any woodworker who has used a tung oil product and you will hear that it is the gold standard for finishing furniture.

In my earlier columns, I described a weather-related challenge that eventually contributed to the end of large-scale tung farming, not only in our area but across the Gulf Coastal Plain from Florida to Texas. That was the chronic risk of a late freeze destroying the blooms, and thus the crop for an entire year.

A more acute weather phenomenon, in conjunction with increasing competition from growers in the plant’s native China and in South America, put the final nail in the coffin of the tung business in our county. Hurricane Camille resulted in almost complete destruction of thousands of acres of orchards here on August 17, 1969.

In my 2019 articles describing the demise of the American tung industry, I also highlighted a rejuvenation taking place in the Florida Panhandle and south Georgia. Earlier this month I visited with Greg Frost, the entrepreneur who began that reinvigoration, on one of Gulf Coast Tung Oil’s (GCTO’s) orchards.

We stood in the midst of thousands of tung trees in an orchard located just north of the Florida-Georgia state line, about 20 miles northwest of Tallahassee.

The expansion since I wrote in 2019 of Mr. Frost’s venture has been nothing short of astounding. Two years ago, GCTO had about thirty acres of mature trees. Now, with the help of their equity partner Applied Underwriters, they have 500 acres of trees, and that figure could double over the next couple of years. See Applied Underwriters’ photographic essay about tung and GCTO online at www.auw.com/experience/gulfcoast. 

Although GCTO started with two varieties of tung, Mr. Frost said that the expansion has been done exclusively with the ‘Spiers’ cultivar, which flowers later in the spring than other varieties making it less susceptible to freeze damage. Frost originally obtained ‘Spiers’ from the Thad Cochran Southern Horticultural Laboratory in Poplarville. The cultivar is named after U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist Dr. James Spiers, who conducted the evaluations of the variety in the early 1970s and who retired from the Poplarville laboratory in 2011.

Mr. Frost also described the ongoing upgrades to equipment used to extract the tung oil from the nuts in GCTO’s mill. Increased extraction capacity will be crucial as production from GCTO’s expanded acreage ramps up over the next several years.

Tung farms may not be coming back to Pearl River County, but Greg Frost and GCTO are ensuring that American-produced tung oil is once again a reality.