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
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.