view current print edition




Crossroad of crises casts pall over annual citrus conference

by Chip Carter | June 17, 2010
BONITA SPRINGS, FL -- Despite golf and fishing tournaments and a handful of family events, the 2010 Florida citrus industry annual conference held June 9- 11 at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort, here, was mostly work.

A crossroad of crises cast a pall over the annual proceedings. With worries about labor, shrinking research and advertising budgets, declining revenues, governmental indifference, costly freezes, stringent new water regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the sudden appearance of citrus black spot disease last month and the ever-present and pernicious threat of huanglongbing (HLB or citrus greening disease), the 600-plus attendees at this year's conference had neither time nor inclination for play.

Annual committee meetings of Florida Citrus Mutual and the Florida Citrus Commission that are typically sparsely attended were packed. The start of a June 10 session of the subcommittee that governs the industry's non-profit Citrus Research & Development Foundation was delayed by almost a half- hour as chairs were brought in and the room rearranged for an overflow crowd.

The importance of Florida citrus as an economic engine for the state was underscored in an election year. The conference was visited by two gubernatorial front-runners, a U.S. senator, a U.S. representative, a state senator, the state attorney general, the outgoing agriculture commissioner and the leading candidate to assume that post.

All delivered the same message: Florida relies on agriculture to drive its economy and will do so even more heavily in the future with its other main economic engines -- tourism and construction -- sputtering. And, with $9 billion in annual revenues, Florida citrus is positioned to be king of the hill. Said U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Bartow), the conference's keynote speaker and the leading candidate to be Florida's next agriculture commissioner, "Agriculture, for reasons none of us desire, will likely be the number one industry in the state of Florida."

But right now, "We're all scared as hell," Bill Paxon, a lobbyist who has represented the industry in Washington, DC, for the last seven years, said June 10. Addressing the annual meeting of Florida Citrus Mutual, the state's largest citrus grower organization, Mr. Paxon continued, "The curveballs Mother Nature throws at you -- freezes and canker and greening and black spot -- that's when I threw my hands up and said, 'This is starting to sound Biblical to me.' "

A "toxic political environment" in Washington and Tallahassee offers no relief, and in fact complicates matters, said Mr. Paxon and others. The federal government is certain to soon send new restrictions about labor and food safety to an already overwhelmed industry. And in Florida, the last two bills designed to help the citrus industry continue research against diseases that could halt it in its tracks were vetoed.

"This industry in this state does not get the respect it deserves in Congress as a business," Mr. Paxon said.

With billions of dollars in emergency funds for hurricanes and freezes sent to Florida farmers in the past decade, "The industry has suffered from a USDA perspective that we've gotten more than our fair share," Rep. Putnam said. Several times throughout the conference attendees heard about a growing disconnect between members of the U.S. and Florida's legislative bodies and the agriculture industry.

Said outgoing state Sen. J.D. Alexander (R-Lake Wales), a citrus grower and outspoken proponent of Florida agriculture, "When I look at the people coming into the Senate, there are not a lot with significant agriculture backgrounds. Unless we can get leaders that understand agriculture, our industry is going to struggle. Beyond two years, I'm starting to have some level of concern."

Rep. Putnam said that many Americans in general and Floridians in particular are "trapped in this iconic Norman Rockwell image that's quaint and warm and cute and charming. Agriculture is a vital, vibrant part of Florida's future. We can't take for granted that Florida will be led by people with a broader vision for the state. This is an opportunity for us to pull together and box above our weight class. We have to educate our 18 million neighbors, whether they've been here for six generations or six weeks, about the pure, raw economic impact of agriculture on the state of Florida, and not let anyone plead ignorance on that."

The state citrus industry has already begun turning the wheels in that direction by approaching the business of citrus like any other industry. After years of haphazard efforts to corral all of Florida's citrus resources under one roof, much progress has been made of late. The state Department of Citrus arose decades ago from grower organizations like Florida Citrus Mutual. Industry and government -- legislature aside -- have continued to work hand-in-glove ever since. Florida growers and their representatives have in the last two years established non-profit corporations to fund research and license intellectual property.

"This model is being looked on as the model for most of the other states," said Osama El-Lissy, director of emergency management for the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service's Plant Protection & Quarantine program. "And we're even looking at the model at the federal level." Meanwhile, Florida citrus growers continue to wrestle with controlling diseases like HLB and black spot.

Promising to rob Peter to pay Paul if necessary, the Florida Citrus Commission voted June 10 to put an additional $2.8 million into the Florida Department of Citrus' 2010-11 budget to cover a shortfall created by recent vetoes of legislation that would have increased funding for citrus disease research. The proposed budget was $53.8 million, down $3.1 million from 2009-10; the approved amended total for 2010-11 stands at $56.6 million.

If revenues raised from the industry's self-assessed box tax do not appear adequate to cover the increase when the U.S. Department of Agriculture's orange crop estimates come out in October, the commission will revisit ways of covering the shortfall - including a box tax increase of 1.6 cents.

Florida citrus growers approved a three-cent hike in the box tax late last year, soliciting a pledge from the commission that there would be no future increases in the short term. Legislative vetoes, however, created an unanticipated $3 million deficit in research revenues.

Growers were also told to prepare for fallout from recent immigration legislation in Arizona that is making headway in Florida.

Derek Whitis, president of Whitis Consulting LLC in Tallahassee, FL, told conference attendees that polls show that more than 60 percent of Floridians favor similar legislation. "Anytime you show a politician poll numbers like that, it gets their attention, so I think we could face that," he said.

Added Sen. Alexander, "I think it's coming. We better look at the bill that might pass and try to tailor it to help us. H2A is not a viable program to help us. We've been having a hard time getting verified Americans to work for us."

In other news, conference attendees got a first look at the citrus industry's new advertising campaign, created by newly hired agency BBDO-Atlanta. The campaign will consist of multiple television spots that rely on humor for much of their appeal and will target younger consumers.

The Florida Citrus Commission named George H. Streetman chairman to replace outgoing Chairman Ben Albritton, who resigned recently to seek election to the state House of Representatives.

Florida Citrus Mutual elected its 2010-11 officers, naming Victor Story of Story Grove Service Inc. in Lake Wales, FL, president. Larry Black, production manager of Peace River Packing Co. in Fort Meade, FL, was elected western area vice president to replace Mr. Story. Mutual's 21 board members were re- elected to their posts.