WESLACO — Dr. Mani Skaria, a retired citrus plant pathologist and innovative entrepreneur from McAllen, has won the 2016 Arthur T. Potts Award for his “outstanding contributions and service to the citrus industry of the Rio Grande Valley.”
The award was presented earlier this month at the 70th annual meeting of the Subtropical Agriculture and Environments Society held at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco.
The award was presented by Dr. Alex Racelis, president of the society and a biology professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
It is named for Arthur T. Potts, who conducted work in citriculture long before the establishment of the commercial citrus industry in Texas. He established agricultural experiment stations throughout the state on behalf of the Texas A&M System, including the Weslaco center in 1923.
In accepting the award, Skaria thanked his mentor, Dr. John Fucik, and many others who contributed to his successes, urging younger scientists in the audience to respect and honor those who came before them.
“I am being honored today because of all the people behind the scenes who helped me,” he said. “I could have never succeeded without them. To the young people in our industry, I urge you to always acknowledge and give thanks to the people who helped you in your careers, all of which is possible by the grace of God.”
After a 25-year career as a scientist at the Texas A&M-Kingsville Citrus Center at Weslaco, Skaria launched a business based on advice he gave local citrus producers, to “think outside the box” in their efforts to remain profitable in a challenging market fraught with pests and devastating plant diseases, including citrus greening.
To combat major acreage losses in Florida and other citrus-producing regions of the world, Skaria suggested growers plant high-density orchards with trees that were micro-budded, a system he developed to graft sour orange rootstock using so-called “disruptive technology.”
The resulting trees, he said, produce abundant fruit in a fraction of the time required by conventionally budded citrus trees.
“By using micro-budded trees, we completely eliminated the nursery phase of tree development,” he said. “Instead of two years in the nursery, our trees are ready for planting in four months. This saves time and money.”
Taking his own advice and with the assistance of investors, Skaria said he founded U.S. Citrus near Hargill, north of Edinburg, a 550-acre state-of-the-art facility with the potential to produce large quantities of high-quality, disease-free citrus trees of many different varieties for sale.
The venture has “well proven that commercialization of micro-budded, high-density citrus orchards is possible using modern techniques,” Skaria said. “In the old times, growers planted a citrus orchard with the idea that in 18 years, their children or grandchildren would eventually reap the full financial benefits of their efforts. This new system reduces the time of full payback on an orchard investment from almost two decades to just half the time required of conventional trees.”
Yields, he said, are also vastly improved while inputs are greatly reduced.
Skaria said he intends to extend his new technology to other citrus producing areas of the world, including California, Florida, Jordan and his home country of India.
Dr. Juan Landivar, director of the research center in Weslaco and keynote speaker at the society’s annual meeting, said Skaria exemplified recipients of the Potts Award.
“This prestigious award honors those who go above and beyond their own interests in horticulture,” he said. “Dr. Skaria and other recipients work and live their lives in service of others, helping the industry succeed.
“Mani took the scientific knowledge he tirelessly acquired while working with the Texas A&M University System, then applied his wisdom in retirement to revolutionize the way citrus is produced in the world in a time of peril. He spends as much time working his business as he does teaching others, at no cost, how to benefit from his extensive knowledge. That’s what the Arthur T. Potts Award is all about, making contributions to horticulture for the benefit of all, producers and consumers alike,” he said.
Previous Potts Award winners include retired U.S. Congressman Kika de la Garza, Dr. Jose Amador, Dr. Ben Villalon, Barbara Storz, Dr. Victor French and Clay Everhard.