MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — Chad Thornburg probably didn’t have to plant an orchard to get his future wife’s attention. But that was part of his plan a decade ago, when he planted the very first satsuma tree on his grandparents’ property in west Mobile.
Chad had been cutting the grass on his grandmother’s 20-acre property anyway, and he figured satsumas would be a good crop to grow in the former pecan orchard. He dug up the trees that were no longer producing, leaving his Grandma’s favorite one and a few others, and gradually planted the rows of satsuma trees that are now so tall they hide her brick house.
Before she died, his beloved grandmother ate the first satsuma he picked. Now, his orchard has nearly 400 trees, and Chad has been married to his wife, Jenny, for eight years. Their love story is as sweet as the mandarin oranges growing abundantly on each tree Chad planted.
Together, the couple run Southern Orchards, where the public can pick the easy-to-peel satsumas to their hearts’ content. And if you don’t live nearby, you can order fresh-picked satsumas that will be shipped to your doorstep.
Chad and Jenny each have full-time jobs – she’s an accountant at an advertising agency, and he’s a firefighter with the Mobile Fire Department – but they also have farming in their blood. Her family owns the third-generation Sessions Farm in Grand Bay, and his father, Andy Thornburg, farms cotton and peanuts.
The farming community in Mobile County is close-knit, so Chad and Jenny have known each other since they were children. Several years ago, Jenny, who had already been single for a while, learned that Chad was going through a divorce. “I sent him a message to say I was sorry to hear that,” she says.
Soon afterward, Chad went to seek advice and guidance from her father, Art Sessions – the largest citrus farmer in the area – about how to get started with his own orchard. “I ran away from farming for a long time,” says Chad. “But this was something I could do on a smaller scale. My mom and dad fronted the funds, and I fronted the labor.”
Going to the Sessions Farm was also a good excuse to see Jenny again. Soon after that visit, they started dating. As their love blossomed, so did the orchard.
“It’s been a learning process,” says Chad. He learned a hard lesson about satsumas when he had to replant the trees twice after they froze.
His goal is “to ship to areas where he won’t grow,” he says – which is, basically, anywhere north of Montgomery. “We’ve shipped to Alaska already this year.”
Southern Orchards will ship seven pounds of satsumas for $25 and 15 pounds for $39. They are also open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for those who want to pick a gallon of satsumas for $20. Clippers and a bucket are provided. And if you’re lucky, you can pick up a jar of Chad’s mother Beverly’s homemade satsuma pepper jelly.
Jenny, who grew up working in the fields with her family, loves to see young families bring children to pick. “They’re introduced to where the fruit comes from,” she says. Visitors can also see the horses Chad’s sister and her family keep, as well as the cows on the other neighbor’s side of the fence. “As much as an experience as it is for them, it is for us to get to watch their excitement about something we might take for granted.”
During satsuma season, which started around the first of November and will go through the weekend before Christmas, family members on both sides, including the couple’s three teenage children and their three cousins who live next door to the orchard, pitch in to help on weekends.
“Even though it’s work, farming still gives you the opportunity to have family relationships and time together you might not otherwise have,” says Jenny. She’s reminded of the time she spent working in the fields alongside her grandmother when she was growing up.
As much as they enjoy sharing their crop with others, Chad loves to be alone among the trees. “Ten months out of the year, I’m out here by myself,” he says. When satsuma season is over, he spends a couple of days each week maintaining the trees and grass. “It’s peaceful.”
Even though it’s located just off Airport Boulevard, the satsuma farm feels like it’s a million miles away. “Being in the orchard gives you a chance to disconnect,” Jenny says. “While the world is changing and people enjoy delivery and pickup, there’s still a desire to have this experience, too.”
She still likes to tease her husband about the cold winter day he spent with her dad to talk about satsumas – and get her attention. “Getting into farming was a crazy thing to do just for a date,” she says with a big smile. “He went all-in.”
Southern Orchards is located at 11000 Calvert Road in Mobile. For more information, visit www.southernorchards1.com, or call (251) 751-4714. Pick your own satsumas every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.