Mark Wheeler, a third-generation Lake Placid citrus grower, shares his thoughts on the recently passed Farm Bill. Wheeler is also President of Florida Citrus Mutual (2012-2014).
As a Florida citrus grower, I felt a sense of relief when it was announced the final version of the Farm Bill, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Friday, had a provision to help fund research to combat the devastating impact of citrus greening. This disease, officially known as Huanglongbing, has been ravaging our industry for the past three to five years, although it was discovered in Florida in 2005.
I was too young to work full time in the industry during the tree-killing freezes of the 1970s and ’80s. However, as a third-generation citrus grower, I saw firsthand the devastating impact these events had on many farmers from Clermont to LaBelle.
I’ve been fully immersed in the chaos waged by a hurricane, on growers and nongrowers alike, because a considerable percent of my family’s acreage lies less than five miles from the crosshairs of 2004 Hurricanes Charley and Frances.
And, while it would never be my intention to understate the severity of these calamities, there’s just something different in dealing with citrus greening. Even canker, which has plagued our industry multiple times over the past 100 years, seems at least to be “manageable” by comparison.
Greening, which has cast a growing pall over our industry, seems to be that constrictor that just tightens its grip every time you take a breath. Every year, we seem to see more yellowing foliage, more dropping leaves and more thwarted fruit on the tree.
The current situation has even left a perpetual optimist, like me, wondering where the industry will be in five years. But, I still firmly believe even the most dire of consequences will create opportunity and ultimately a silver lining.
The citrus industry’s glimmer of hope has evolved around the intensive and cooperative efforts of its leaders to find a cure for greening. The growers’ commitment to fund their own research of approximately $70 million, and their efforts to raise public awareness and garner support of our elected officials has also been very encouraging.
While we still have a distance to go in our battle with this dreaded disease, the Farm Bill’s breakthrough for research funding is a milestone with considerable ramifications. This consistent funding will allow the grower research, already being conducted, to be enhanced considerably.
This funding mechanism was conceived, thoughtfully designed and carefully navigated over three years by the statewide grower trade organization, Florida Citrus Mutual. There are many groups and individuals who brought this dire necessity to reality, including the entire Florida congressional delegation, which stepped aside from partisan politics and well served an industry vital to our state.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., helped launch and sustained this effort in Washington. We also had many allies at the state level and our representation on the Hill advancing this cause.
But, make no mistake, thousands of Florida’s growers, through their organization, Florida Citrus Mutual, made this concept a reality. Executive Director Mike Sparks and the great staff at FCM have served not only the Florida citrus industry but the entire country’s citrus industry far better than anyone could expect.