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California Citrus Mutual CEO wrapping up eventful first year

As February rolls into view, Casey Creamer, president and chief executive officer of California Citrus Mutual, will complete his first year as the top executive of California’s top trade association for the citrus category.

He told The Produce News that it has been an eventful year with a host of issues vying for the top spot on the priority list. “HLB and trade are up there but so are water and labor, and the safety and security of our product,” he said. “We have a lot of No. 1 issues.”

47 CreamerCasey CreamerCreamer, who joined CCM in 2018 as heir-apparent to longtime CEO Joel Nelsen, took over the position on Feb. 1, 2019. When pressed, he said HLB and trade might get a bit more attention because those are two concerns with a citrus-specific component. Water and labor issues as well as food-safety concerns are industrywide problems that CCM addresses as part of broader agricultural coalitions.

HLB, or citrus greening, refers to the Huanglongbing bacteria, which is carried by the tiny Asian Citrus Psyllid insect and has devastated the Florida citrus industry. It was first found in 2005 in Florida, but its potential impact was not known and was greatly underestimated. Florida’s citrus acreage has dropped by more than one-third and its production has been cut by 60 percent in the ensuing years as it continues to grapple with the problem. As HLB and ACP spread to the citrus growing states of California and Texas, the citrus communities in both of those regions were much more proactive in dealing with the potential problem. Creamer said that vigilance and different growing conditions has helped contain the pest and disease in both Texas and California.

“We have to remain vigilant,” he said noting that the number of residential trees in the Los Angeles area infected with HLB grew exponentially in the past year. “The residential outreach program that we put in place (several years ago) is the key to keeping HLB out of the commercial production areas,” he added.

A large sampling program is credited with identifying the HLB-infested trees, which are then destroyed. Creamer indicated that CCM’s HLB program is ongoing with no end in sight.

The trade issue is just as concerning and more immediate. The importance of the export market to California citrus cannot be overstated. While the majority of the navel crop is sold domestically, the export market is typically the most important factor determining the success of any season. The trade dispute between the United States and China has not been good for California citrus exporters. Creamer expressed hope that the recently reached agreement on the first phase of a new trade agreement with China will prove effective. However, he said the elimination of tariffs imposed by China on U.S. citrus was not part of that agreement. It remains to be seen whether China will lift those tariffs in time to ramp up sales of this year’s crop.

As mentioned, dealing with water and labor issues is an ongoing concern that CCM is constantly monitoring and coordinating with other trade associations. Lack of water, lack of labor and cost of labor are three issues that greatly impact the profitability of grower-shippers.

On another note, Creamer said CCM has ramped up its communications department by hiring Alexis Silveira as communications manager. The organization is in the process of rolling out a new logo and a new website. “We want to be more strategic about our messaging and communicate more clearly and precisely about who we are and who we represent and what messages we want to convey to policymakers,” he said.