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Florida Citrus Mutual blasts governor for lack of support

by Chip Carter | June 01, 2010
In the wake of recent budget cuts in Florida that slashed support for citrus industry research efforts, the state's largest citrus trade organization blasted Gov. Charlie Crist in a June 2 e-mail sent to thousands of members and media outlets.

In May, Gov. Crist vetoed HB 981,a measure that would have codified the Citrus Research & Development Foundation, which serves as ground zero for the industry’s fight against HLB, or citrus greening, a disease that is now spreading a path of destruction throughout Florida groves. The bill would have provided about $2 million toward research efforts. Last week, Gov. Crist sliced another $1 million slated for the CRDF citrus greening research program from the state budget. Florida citrus growers would have been required to match the $1 million appropriation with $1.5 million of their own money.

"Clearly the governor doesn’t understand the seriousness of the pests and diseases our $9 billion industry is battling," Michael W. Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual in Lakeland, FL, said in the e-mail. “Quite frankly, I’m a little surprised because we recently had the Governor in a grove to explain the severe issues we are facing. His recent vetoes are imperiling the future of Florida citrus and its 76,000 jobs. Florida residents should take a good look at the orange and blossom on the state’s official license plate because that may be the last place to see them thanks to the governor.”

Gov. Crist’s office did not respond to calls or e-mails seeking a response to the citrus industry charges of indifference and a lack of support.

Mr. Sparks said that the cuts were particularly galling because Florida citrus growers have self-funded more than $26 million in research efforts over the past three years.

“We have skin in the game -- this was not a hand out,” Mr. Sparks said. “This [funding] was essential to augment what citrus growers have already put up. I’m very disappointed the governor did not believe it was important.” Mutual spokesman Andrew Meadows suggested there might be a disconnect between the halls of government in Tallahassee and the agricultural community in the rest of the state.

“Certainly these moves would indicate that,” Mr. Meadows told The Produce News June 2. “I think that sometimes agriculture is overlooked and that’s unfortunate.”

Mr. Meadows said that Florida’s economy is a “three-legged stool” comprised of tourism, construction and agriculture, “and they all need to be solid for that stool to hold up.” With construction and tourism reeling from a three-year economic slump, agriculture is more important that ever, Mr. Meadows said, adding, “we will try to continue to educate legislators and the powers-that-be to that fact.”

Mr. Meadows said that the organization does not expect the e-mail to change the governor’s mind. “The veto pen has made its stroke. We just wanted our members to know and the general public to know that we were disappointed. What’s done is done, and we’ll move forward. Our research effort is still going to move forward seamlessly. We’ll move on to plan B.”

There is no means for the industry to make up the shortfall. Already this year the Florida citrus industry has slashed its television advertising by $1.6 million -- half the amount originally allotted -- to divert money to research.

“That general revenue money from the state would have certainly helped augment our efforts,” Mr. Meadows said, “but we’re going to progress with or without it because we have to. We’re facing a crisis situation right now and we need to marshal the troops and move forward.”