Joe Davis Sr. – a Florida Citrus legend – remembered

Sept. 25 1923 to Oct. 15, 2014

Few in the Florida Citrus industry can recall a time when Orange Juice wasn’t king.

Joe Davis Sr. lived through it.

“In 60 years, we saw it grow from a 95 percent fresh fruit business to a 96 percent processed orange business,” Davis said during an interview earlier this year.

“There wasn’t nobody in the juice business…there (wasn’t a) juice business around. So we just saw this thing completely change,” Davis said. “Not only that, we saw the rootstock change, we saw the variety change. I don’t know how the business in the last 60 years could have been more challenging.”

But Davis wouldn’t have had it any other way. From grove owner to real estate baron to chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission, Davis spent a lifetime touching every aspect of the industry and the people inside it.

“It’s been the foundation for a very good family life to me.”

The citrus industry titan passed away on Wednesday. He was 91 years old.

Serving as a mentor to those in the industry, Davis had a profound affect on the lives of many, including Marty McKenna.

“I depended on his past experience and knowledge and just his keen insight of the industry. He just had wonderful gut feelings,” the current FCC Chairman said. “The Florida Citrus industry was part of his daily life schedule for probably 80 years. That’s knowledge and experience that is tough to replace.”

“He was always devoted to the industry, particularly to the Florida Citrus grower,” McKenna added. “I’ll certainly miss his him and his counsel on many things that had to do with the Department of Citrus and the citrus industry.”

Davis was a big supporter of the Florida Citrus Commission, which he was part of for a total of 16 years between 1979 and 2001, serving as chairman for four seasons.

“He was a great advocate of the sunshine tree and 100% Florida Orange Juice,” said Ben Hill Griffin III, who served with Davis on the Commission. “I consider this a great loss to the industry. Joe’s knowledge and experience through the years has been valued. He has had an impact in many arenas of the citrus industry.”

Florida Department of Citrus Executive Director Doug Ackerman agreed.

“It is impossible to convey what a huge hole this loss leaves in our industry,” Ackerman said. “Mr. Davis made an impact that far exceeded his ability to be physically present in groves, packing houses or boardrooms. So much of what he did – just by the nature of how he did it, the force of his personality and vision – built capacity in others. That is why his legacy looms so large. He mentored so many of our industry’s leaders and initiated so many changes to how we do what we do. If you’re in the industry today, you are somehow benefitting from what Joe Davis Sr. did for you over the years. He will be missed, but his memory will live on in the industry he loved.”

While serving on the Commission, Davis is credited with helping to increase the FDOC’s emphasis on marketing, creating a political action committee to help alleviate the strain that land development and the rise of high-tech industry was placing on Florida’s shrinking citrus industry and fighting to establish a “100% Florida” identity to help raise awareness of Florida Citrus, according to the Citrus Hall of Fame, where Davis was inducted in 1999.

Even after leaving the Commission, Davis continued to have a profound impact on the activities of the FDOC.

Current staff member David Steele recalls an early visit with Davis in Wauchula as helping to shape a newcomer’s view of the industry: “After we’d talked a bit about the current state of affairs, Mr. Davis looked at me and said, ‘We’ve changed rootstock twice before, and we’ll do it again. Nothing can stop Florida citrus.’ Folks who knew him will be able to picture him jabbing his finger at me as he said those words. His intensity was absolutely inspirational. I’ve heard his words in my ears every day since I met him.”

Born in Hardee County in 1923, Davis knew early on that the citrus industry was his future. By 1976, he had accumulated more than 600 acres of Hardee County citrus, states his Citrus Hall of Fame bio. He became known for his ability to locate the best available land and soil for citrus growing.

Davis also served on the board and as chairman of Florida Citrus Mutual and later opened a packinghouse called Davis Citrus Farms along with his son, Joe Davis Jr., and baseball player Ted Williams.

“I think Joe is one of our legends of the industry,” said industry fixture Jim Ellis. “He was such a staunch supporter of the Florida Citrus industry. He had a passion for the industry and when I think of Joe Davis, I think of the citrus industry. He was certainly one of our strongest leaders, commissioners and friends.”

As news of Davis’ passing spread Thursday, thoughts on the citrus industry legend streamed in from across the state.

“Joe Davis was a larger than life character that provided strong leadership to our industry,” said State Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, himself a citrus grower. “He was one of the brightest people I’ve ever met. His impact on FL citrus will be remembered for generations and he will be sorely missed.”

From State Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring: “Mr. Davis was part of the foundation of Florida’s Heartland through his contributions to the industry and the community. I will miss the many political discussions we have had. My heart goes out to the family.”

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam said: “Joe Davis Sr. has been an icon of Florida’s citrus industry for more than 60 years as a grower, innovator and leader. His work redefined citrus irrigation, saving valuable water resources, and improved marketing efforts for high-quality Florida citrus. His leadership has had an impact on all of us, an impact that will continue for generations to come.”

Mike Sparks, Florida Citrus Mutual Executive VP/CEO, also shared thoughts on the passing of his former board member: “I considered Mr. Davis a friend, mentor and a leading voice on all of the issues facing our industry. One thing about Joe is that you always knew where you stood with him. It was refreshing to say the least. I just saw him last week and there he was holding court with a group of growers as usual. We will miss his sage advice and presence throughout the industry. Florida has truly lost one of its citrus legends.”

Visitation is Monday, October 20, from 6 to 8 p.m., at Robarts Family Funeral Home in Wauchula. The funeral is Tuesday, October 21, at 11 a.m., at the First Baptist Church of Wauchula.

For more on the life of Joe Davis Sr., read Kevin Bouffard’s article in The Ledger.