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Florida citrus looks toward a rosy future at conference

by C. Baxter Carter | July 12, 2009
BONITA SPRINGS, FL -- A decade of hurricanes, freezes, disease, pestilence and groves lost to encroaching real estate development has hammered the Florida citrus industry mercilessly, but growers and shippers attending the fifth Florida Citrus Industry annual conference June 24-26 at the Coconut Point Hyatt were not singing the blues.

"To paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of the Florida citrus industry's demise have been greatly exaggerated," Michael Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual, told gathered media at the conference. "That's not to say we aren't facing some immense challenges. For all those challenges, we're proud to provide consumers with that great- tasting, wholesome product we all enjoy. We remain a powerful economic engine, particularly in the heart of the Florida citrus industry. Many rural areas depend on citrus, and the overall impact of our crop becomes even more important for those cities and the state of Florida."

Florida citrus is a $9.3-billion annual industry with more than 600,000 acres of groves employing 76,000 people, Mr. Sparks said. A record number of growers, shippers and industry personnel -- more than 650 -- came to this year's conference, attending meetings and educational sessions, participating in golf and fishing tournaments, and rubbing elbows with University of Florida football Coach Urban Meyer at the conference's gala banquet. Disease and pestilence - canker and the Asian citrus psyllid in particular - topped the list of Florida grower and shipper concerns.

"Florida has a great growing climate," Mr. Sparks said. "But that same climate makes it a great place for pests and disease to make a home."

Industry efforts to control a decade-old virulent canker outbreak led to research that could reclassify categorization of infected fruit from a threat to a blemish. The U.S. Department of Agriculture filed a proposed change to regulations June 30 that have limited shipping of fresh Florida citrus since 2006. Under the proposed change, shipping without restriction could resume as soon as December, Paul Hornby, Florida plant health director of the USDA's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, told a standing-room-only crowd of growers and shippers.

With canker momentarily in the rearview mirror, the industry is now turning its full attention to battling the Asian citrus psyllid and the lethal bacterial infection it spawns, Huanglongbing, known commonly as HLB. The psyllid was first found in Florida in 1986, the first HLB infection in 2005. Mr. Sparks said that without tools to combat the spread of HLB, Florida citrus production could drop even further from its peak of 200 million boxes annually to 155 million 160 million boxes as early as next year. That number could fall to 140 million within three to five years.

"There is a sense of urgency -- we have to act quickly. Whole groves are at risk, ultimately the whole citrus industry," Mr. Sparks said. "The psyllid spreads [HLB] from tree to tree and grove to grove. The immediate war is against that bug."

Florida citrus is fighting other wars as well. High inventories of orange juice coupled with falling consumption "is really putting some downward pressures on grower returns," Mr. Sparks said. "To say that the '09 season is not an easy season is probably the understatement of the year. Growers have seen prices that weren't even break-even. Growers who don't have a long-term contract probably lost money this year."

Mr. Sparks estimated that about half of Florida citrus growers have long-term contracts, while the other half depend on the cash market. In 2009, Valencia prices "hovered around 80 cents" on the cash market until near the end of the season, when the price climbed to $1.20. He said that growers need a price between $1.21 and $1.25 per pound solid to break even. "An abundance of high-price product got caught up in the pipeline" this season, Mr. Sparks said, but the current glut shows signs of abating.

The economic squeeze, along with millions of dollars diverted from marketing efforts to fund canker and HLB research, prompted the Florida Department of Citrus to seek an increase in the growers' citrus box tax to 14 cents per box from 11 cents for fresh oranges and to 16 cents a box from a dime on tangerines and other specialty fruits (grapefruit would be taxed at the current 35 cents per box). Industry opposition squelched the box tax increase.

As a result, state marketing efforts for citrus will plummet. According to an FDOC spokesperson, the department's annual budget at $61.7 million is slightly smaller than last year's $62 million, but the agency will spend just $1.2 million promoting fresh fruit and grapefruit juice, about half this year's budget. Industry officials said that growers and shippers would better spend the money on self-promotion.

"Diseases have prompted some growers to resist replanting because of the unknown. On the other hand, many growers are replanting -- they continue to consider citrus a good investment. It's a way of life for them and their grandchildren," Mr. Sparks said. "Citrus growers, they're resilient. They've [survived] bad weather for centuries. If history is an indicator, the citrus industry will survive - be leaner, meaner and better for it."

In other conference news, Florida Citrus Mutual affirmed board members and officers for 2009-10. Fran Becker, vice president of fruit procurement for Peace River Citrus Products Inc. in Bradenton, was re-elected president.

Vice presidents are Vic Story of Lake Wales representing west Florida; Trey Smith of Vero Beach representing the east; Raymond (Bo) Bentley Jr. of Winter Haven representing the north; and Mark Wheeler of Lake Placid representing the south.

Marty McKenna of Sebring was re-elected secretary, and Dennis Broadaway of Haines City was re-elected treasurer.

The board of directors re-elected Mike Sparks as executive vice president and CEO, Jewel Letchworth as assistant secretary and Kevin Metheny as assistant treasurer.

FCM also installed its 21-member board of directors at the annual meeting. Each director serves a one-year term, with a term limit of two years for the president.

Other board members are Robert E. Battaglia of Winter Park, Larry Black of Ft. Meade, Kevin Bynum of Vero Beach, J.A. (Jay) Clark III of Wauchula, Rex Clonts of Apopka, David Evans of Oviedo, Richard (Ric) Freeman of Winter Garden, P. Louis Haverlock of Balm, Tom Jerkins of Ft. Pierce, George Neukom III of Zephyrhills, Steve Ryan of Arcadia, John Smoak III of Lake Placid, Steve Sorrells of Arcadia, and Wade Timpner of LaBelle.