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The industry is seeking $20 million from the state to fund further research

SEBRING, Fla. – Members of the Florida Senate Agriculture Committee received a clear message from the Florida Citrus industry Thursday: further investment is needed to save the state’s signature crop.

“We’re way past losing hobby growers at this point,” said Adam Putnam, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture. “We are impacting the heart of the industry. That is why time is of the essence. This industry is too important to our state and too important to our nation to let it slip away.”

The industry is seeking $20 million from the state to fund further research toward a solution to the disease that has devastated production across the state. If realized, this season’s forecast of 76.4 million boxes of oranges will be the lowest since 1964.

Committee members senators Bill Galvano, of Brandenton, and Denise Grimsley, of Sebring, as well as state Rep. Cary Pigman, of Avon Park, attended the hearing held in Sebring, where they heard from several members of the citrus industry as well as a panel of citrus growers.

More than $176 million has been invested in greening research since 2008. About $71 million of that has been funded through taxes growers levied on themselves.

When asked by Sen. Galvano what the industry has received in return for such a large investment, Lake Wales-based grower Marty McKenna summed it up.

“We got another year of this industry in Florida,” McKenna said. “Without that money spent, we would’ve been gone two to three years ago.”

Tom Mitchell, of Riverfront Packing Company, added: “ROI? It’s hard to make the numbers work. But, we see it daily in 125 employees who have given their lives to this industry. It’s the jobs and the highest quality product for the world. The more you’re removed, the harder it is to see the return on investment, but these are positive results.”

Mike Sparks, executive director of Florida Citrus Mutual, also stressed the importance of continued investments. The industry that provides $10 billion in economic impact and 62,000 jobs could lose $2 billion in impact and 20,000 jobs if this year’s forecast plays out, he said.

“The cost of (greening research) is dwarfed by how much we could lose,” Sparks said.

Several research projects are in the pipeline that could have a large effect on the industry, said Dr. Harold Browning, of the Citrus Research and Development Foundation.

Three products designed to combat the bacteria spread by the Asian citrus psyllid are nearing approval by the Environmental Protection Agency and could be available to growers by spring, Browning said.

Plans are also in place to further invest in abandoned grove programs and improve on current ones.

Grower McKenna, who also serves as chair of the Florida Citrus Commission, requested legislators also consider supporting the industry’s marketing efforts through further funding.

As production has declined so has the amount of money available to sustain the market, McKenna said.

“For 70 years growers have funded marketing and made orange juice America’s favorite fruit juice,” McKenna said. “When the greening research is successful, we are going to need to still have a market.”

According to Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, “the symbolism of the Committee’s visit to citrus country was not lost on the growers. Our industry is doing all it can, and today’s meeting sent the message that our growers’ work is not in vain.”