PORT SULPHUR, La. — Three new, early-ripening varieties of satsuma mandarins have given Louisiana producers a head start on the state's annual citrus harvest.

Louisiana Early, Early St. Ann and Brown Select — all developed by the LSU AgCenter — are being accepted enthusiastically by both growers and the buying public, according to Wayne Bourgeois, resident coordinator of the LSU AgCenter's Citrus Research Station at Port Sulphur.

Bourgeois says the new varieties' excellent quality and color make the small, sweet fruits popular among Louisianians.

Satsumas are the earliest citrus crop of the season, followed closely in Louisiana by navel oranges, according to Alan Vaughn, LSU AgCenter county agent in Plaquemines Parish.

Patty Vogt, a citrus farmer with 1,000 trees at Home Place, La., says the public is realizing small satsumas make excellent snacks for kids and adults and are readily available for fishermen to take along in their lunch boxes.

"People come in saying that they have been waiting for the satsumas to ripen," Vogt says. "They are a true indication of fall."

Vaughn says satsumas have a distinctive, sweet flavor and a loose skin that makes them easy to peel — especially for children. Early-season satsumas usually are green with a hint of yellow in the peel. Later varieties are orange.

"Don't let the orange color be your only guide," Vaughn says. "Even skins with light green color can hide ripe fruit."

Because satsumas often are on the small side, when compared to the oranges people are accustomed to seeing, Vaughn stresses that the smaller fruit can be just as juicy and sweet as larger fruit.

"The most widely available Louisiana-grown fruit is the navel orange," Vaughn says. The local variety begins to ripen in November and hits its peak around Thanksgiving. Satsumas are harvested now through January.

Along with navel oranges and satsumas, Louisiana growers also produce lemons, grapefruit and kumquats. Vaughn says approximately 350 Louisiana farmers grow citrus on about 1,400 acres, primarily in the extreme southeastern part of the state.

"Louisiana farmers pick only ripe fruit — never artificially ripened — that's shipped directly to local stores to insure maximum flavor and freshness," Vaughn says.

The LSU AgCenter county agent says citrus will keep several days at room temperature or for several weeks in the refrigerator in vented plastic bags or vegetable bins.

The LSU AgCenter estimates Louisiana citrus represents a $6 million industry in 15 southern parishes.

Rick Bogren writes for the LSU AgCenter.