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BONITA SPRINGS, FL — Amid ongoing legislative and disease battles, citrus is still a major player in Florida’s economy and is well positioned to become an even bigger factor in the future. That was the message some 650 growers, shippers and industry affiliates took away from the annual Florida Citrus Conference, held here June 15-17 at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort.

 

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Florida District 66 Rep. Ben Albritton, a citrus grower and former member of the Florida Citrus Commission, spoke with the state’s new commissioner of agriculture, Adam Putnam, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, during the June 16 banquet at the annual Florida Citrus Conference. (Photo by Chip Carter)
There were disappointing elements to this year’s Florida citrus season, but high markets had attendees in high spirits at this year’s conference. Attendance was up from last year’s total of 575, and half of Florida’s state Cabinet stopped by in a non-election year.

 

Gov. Rick Scott, who two weeks earlier had “blackened both eyes” of the citrus industry with legislative action, according to Michael Sparks, vice president and chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual, stopped by for an invitation-only meeting June 15 with Mutual’s board of directors.

And Adam Putnam, the new commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services and a 10-year member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was the keynote speaker June 16 at the industry’s annual banquet.

On May 26, Gov. Scott vetoed a $2 million appropriation for citrus greening research that would have been paid by citrus growers themselves via a box tax collected on each carton of citrus sold. That same day, he approved a bill that restructured the makeup of the Florida Citrus Commission and Florida Department of Citrus, redrawing district lines and shrinking the number of commissioners to nine from 12.

Among other items, that same bill also ends the terms of all currently serving commissioners and Executive Director Ken Keck on July 1 and allows the governor to appoint the nine who will make up the new board as well as the new director.

Mr. Sparks told attendees that the industry would overcome the veto and restructuring of the commission.

“Now we’re looking forward to the transition and are moving forward,” he said. “We have established a good rapport and communication with the governor’s staff, and hopefully that’s something we can leverage in the future.”

In 2009, the commission made a pledge of “tax neutrality” for the growers and shippers who foot the bill for most of the commission’s — and the Florida Department of Citrus’ — operations, and this year’s commission made good on that promise, trimming the budget for 2011-12 to $54.8 million, down $4.5 million from last year.

Almost one in five of those dollars — $10 million — will go to disease research as Florida tries to stem the spread of the lethal huanglongbing virus, also known as HLB or citrus greening disease, that threatens the industry’s viability. The commission also snipped two cents off the annual box tax that growers pay to fund the commission and the FDOC.

The industry should get further help from Capitol Hill this year, according to Mutual’s Washington, DC, lobbyist John Gilland of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) is sponsoring a federal research foundation bill that could mean $30 million in funds for disease research.

“Your industry has a great reputation on the hill. It makes our job much easier,” Mr. Gilland said. “In an off-election year, you expect revenue measures to move, so we think there’s going to be some good opportunities for us this summer and fall. This industry has done a very good job communicating [to Washington] very clearly what it needs.”

The measure will need U.S. House sponsorship as well, and Mr. Gilland pledged that “when the right time comes, we’ll have our allies in place.”

Added Mr. Sparks, “Senator Nelson, the Florida delegation, California Citrus Mutual, Texas Citrus Mutual — everybody knows we are all-in this year. We are going to make it happen this year. It will be all hands on deck late this summer and fall — and that’s across the board.”

Mr. Sparks also said that immigration and E-verification will “no doubt be part of the legislative package next year. Don’t think that this issue is going to go away. We are already developing a strategy on how this is going to be addressed next session.”

“It seems like we’ve had more voice in Washington than we have in Tallahassee,” added citrus grower and commission member Marty McKenna. “We’ve got to be involved. We need everybody’s input, don’t just throw it on the shoulder of the committee. This is a real opportunity and a real challenge, and I ask you all to contribute. It’s time to rise above some of this mess that’s going on. We have too many problems in this industry and too much ground to make up. I beseech my peers and my colleagues to pull together and get this industry back on track and get it back in the position it should be in this state and in this nation.”