Bhumi Growers: Cultivating Citrus in a Cool Climate

A New Jersey citrus farm provides hard-to-find fruits and proof that passion for a product is enough to grow on.

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Bhumi Growers

Farming is about passion. The love of growing things and sharing them with others keeps us farmers going despite the challenges. One of the trials that many small-scale growers face is entry into the market, especially when competing with large, established farms already selling common items. For some farmers, growing a niche crop or a crop that’s not grown locally can put their farm on the map. In New Jersey, Vivek and Seema Malik, owners of Bhumi Growers, turned their passion for a hard-to-find fruit into a successful citrus farm located states away from typical citrus territory.

In Pursuit of ‘Yuzu’

Vivek and Seema spent years working in New York City before starting Bhumi Growers. (“Bhumi” means “Mother Earth” in Hindi.) “We are both immigrants to the country,” Vivek says. “During our first few years working in New York City, we found ourselves frequent visitors to Nobu, a well-known Japanese restaurant, where we especially loved their signature dish of hamachi with jalapeño and ‘Yuzu’ soy.”

After learning that ‘Yuzu’ is a citrus fruit, Vivek and Seema began looking for locally available ‘Yuzu’ to use in their home cooking. After a lengthy search, they found a Japanese grocery in New Jersey that carried the fruit, though only for a short period of time. Unfortunately, the seasonal supply left Vivek and Seema at the mercy of outside suppliers. So, when they finished their limited ‘Yuzu’ supply, they planted some of the seeds to see what would happen. Unbeknownst to them, those ‘Yuzu’ seeds sprouted a whole new business.

Patience Pays Off

When they planted the seeds, Vivek and Seema didn’t know that a citrus tree can take more than 10 years to mature and produce fruit. While waiting, they nurtured the saplings — keeping them in pots­ — and learned as much as they could about caring for container-grown citrus.

After 12 years of care, the trees reached about 6 feet tall and began producing their first fruits. The following year, Vivek and Seema were able to harvest enough fruit to share. At that point, they started exploring the idea of growing and selling ‘Yuzu’ and other hard-to-find citrus. “We approached restaurants in nearby Princeton, New Jersey, to inquire about their interest, and received very positive feedback,” Vivek says. In doing so, they took the first step in working with a niche product: Confirm there’s a market for what you want to sell. Bolstered by the encouragement from potential customers, Vivek and Seema began looking for greenhouse space, which they knew would be essential to growing citrus on a large scale in New Jersey’s cold winters. With help from their local extension agent, they found a spot about 20 minutes from their home.

From there, Vivek and Seema began learning all they could about citrus suppliers in the United States; regulations pertaining to citrus; and the needs and desires of their potential customers. A common complication with a niche product, however, is that local resources are often few and far between, especially if you’re growing a product outside of its typical Zone. Vivek and Seema had to rely on experts at the University of Florida and the University of California, Riverside, for technical questions and other guidance, and they learned through trial and error which practices and techniques best suited their trees and specific growing conditions.

For a more in-depth learning experience, they also traveled to Kochi, Japan, to visit a ‘Yuzu’ research center. They then made a second research trip, going to Switzerland to visit Niels Rodin, who grows citrus in greenhouses outside of Geneva. “This was another great learning experience for us, from someone who has been growing greenhouse citrus for a longer time,” Vivek says.

Sweet Citrus Success

Initially, Vivek and Seema bought trees from commercial nurseries in Oregon and California. They learned over time, however, that grafting their own trees was quicker and more cost-effective. Now, they source rootstock plants from nurseries, allow them to grow for a couple of years, and then graft their desired plants onto them. “We use grafting budwood provided by the CCPP [Citrus Clonal Protection Program at the University of California, Riverside],” Vivek says. “The program at UC Riverside maintains clean, disease-free citrus plants, and provides budwood to growers for propagation. Citrus is self-pollinating, but we help our trees by introducing bees into the greenhouse in spring.”

Simran Malik, Vivek and Seema’s daughter, has taken a keen interest in the grafting process. She now grafts and monitors graft viability for all new trees at Bhumi Growers, which is integral to forecasting production volumes.

From those original ‘Yuzu’ seeds planted years ago, Bhumi Growers has expanded to 800 trees of various sizes and stages of maturity. The wide range of fruit Bhumi Growers now offers includes ‘Yuzu,’ ‘Sudachi’ lemon, ‘Calamansi’ orange, ‘Fukushu’ kumquat, ‘Nagami’ kumquat, ‘Meiwa’ kumquat, ‘Faustrime’ finger lime, ‘Makrut’ lime, ‘Rangpur’ lime, ‘Australian Finger Lime’ finger lime, ‘Eustis’ limequat, ‘Indio’ mandarinquat, and ‘Marrakech’ limonette. “All our trees are potted and are placed in the greenhouse,” Vivek says. “We therefore focus on the smaller citrus varieties that can be container-grown, rather than the larger fruits, which would most definitely need to be planted in the soil. We evaluated the flowering and fruiting season for each of these varieties, and picked varieties that offered unique flavor and matured at different intervals so that the greenhouse always has a few citrus varieties in season.”

Although they’ve been successful with many fruits, Vivek and Seema say they’re cognizant of the limitations they face growing citrus in a greenhouse. “At one point, we did plant ‘Sanguinelli’ blood oranges and etrogs, but they did not do well in containers,” Vivek says.

In addition to growing citrus, Bhumi Growers also does citrus purveying, which helps fill the gap between citrus growers and customers. Citrus purveying not only provides additional revenue, it also allows Vivek and Seema to offer a wider variety of citrus to their customers.

And, of course, one of the most important aspects of a farming operation is profiting from your sales. Bhumi Growers has steadily increased its customer base, which includes restaurants, cocktail bars, breweries, distilleries, fermenters, and individuals. Vivek and Seema are exploring opportunities to add more greenhouse space, in order to increase capacity and explore other hard-to-find citrus fruits. They also offer a variety of citrus-flavored syrups, tinctures, and bitters, called “Flavors by Bhumi.” A second product line consisting of citrus-scented bath products is currently in production and will be available in late 2021.

Inside of greenhouse with many Bhumi citrus trees at various stages of growth.

Growing Citrus at Home

Regardless of where you live, a citrus plant can make a wonderful addition to your home. Citrus plants are aesthetically pleasing, and they produce fragrant flowers. And, of course, there’s the high-quality fruit, just waiting for you to reach out and pick it. For many years, my wife and I enjoyed growing a potted ‘Meyer’ lemon tree. I still remember cutting into the freshly picked fruit and seeing the juice ooze out of the lemon. What a difference from store-bought lemons! If you don’t live in a climate that supports citrus, you can still grow these trees in pots. Keep them inside during winter, and then place them outside during the warmer part of the year.

Start small trees in pots ranging from 1 to 3 gallons, depending on the size of the tree. As the tree grows, you can scale up to larger pots of 10 to 14 inches. Use a lightweight, compost-rich potting mix that drains well. Citrus plants don’t do well in heavy clay soil. (Soil from your garden is likely too heavy for citrus.) Once you’ve planted the tree, move the pot to a site that receives at least 6 to 8 hours of sun per day, preferably with a southern exposure. Deeply water your tree every 10 days or so, and let the soil dry out to about 6 inches below the surface before watering again. Citrus trees need to be fertilized at least two times a year, once in spring and once in summer.

Some citrus does better in containers than others. ‘Meyer’ lemon, ‘Nagami’ kumquat, and ‘Bearss’ lime all do well in containers, and all produce useful and delicious fruit. Following are some of the common uses for citrus, whether you’re considering growing plants for personal consumption or for profit.

  • Citrus is a popular beverage ingredient.
  • Breweries use citrus to create citrus-flavored beers.
  • Citrus is an ingredient in many pastries.
  • ‘Yuzu’ seeds are used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes, such as skin treatments and perfumes.
  • ‘Yuzu’ rind is used as a garnish on many Japanese dishes.
  • The peel and juice of ‘Yuzu’ fruits are used to create yuzu kosho — a popular condiment in Japanese cuisine.
  • ‘Fukushu’ kumquats and ‘Calamansi’ oranges can be candied, and the fruits are used in various ways in restaurants, bars, and pastry preparations.
  • Many types of citrus can be pickled and preserved for use throughout the year.

Connect with Bhumi Growers

Michael Brown owns Pitspone Farm, a small-acreage suburban farm and nursery that focuses on growing and selling uncommon berries. Questions and comments are always welcome at Pitspone Farm.