Florida citrus conference wrestles with disease, laborBONITA SPRINGS, Fla. — As Florida citrus growers gathered for their 10th industry conference, a sense of optimism prevailed that research is closer to discovering how to halt the disease threatening their industry.

That optimism was tempered by reality at the June 11-13 Florida Citrus Industry Annual Conference which also tackled other industry issues challenging growers.

“We need reasons to be optimistic,” said Mike Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of conference sponsor Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual. “We know it’s rough out there and sometimes tough to be optimistic, but things are going to get better.”

Sparks said many grower are replanting trees.

“So don’t write our obituary yet,” he said. “We have a long future ahead of us.”

“Reason for optimism” was the theme of a June 12 session updating the industry’s fight against citrus greening, also known as HLB and huanglongbing.

Tom Jerkins, president of Premier Citrus Packers LLC, Vero Beach, and president of the Lake Alfred-based Citrus Research and Development Foundation Inc., used a football analogy to encourage the industry.

Florida citrus conference wrestles with disease, labor“There are head coaches and offensive coordinators,” he said. “We’re in the fourth quarter and we’re not winning. We need these guys with headsets on, clipboards, running up and down the field, from one player to another and screaming into the ref’s faces.”

The recently passed farm bill commits $25 million per-year for five years for citrus greening research and represents a boost to Florida, California and Texas in combating the disease, said Harold Browning, the foundation’s chief operating officer.

“We are funding 130 projects and are real optimistic about this process,” he said. “We have been looking at HLB since 2005. What was long-term years ago is near-term now.”

Other issues surfaced during the convention.

Geoff Verhoff, a lobbyist, said the unexpected primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va,, disrupted bipartisan immigration reform efforts.

Florida citrus conference wrestles with disease, labor“At 6:00 last night, there was a table that seemed to be set for something to happen on immigration this year, but a hurricane blew through and knocked it all over,” Verhoff said during a June 11 meeting. “Immigration is going to just get more complicated until this election. Past the elections, it will become more complicated because we will be in a primary season.”

Verhoff recommended growers use the time to tell people how important the issue is and try to gain more allies across all industries.

  • During citrus mutual’s meeting, these individuals were elected to the trade group’s executive committee:
  • Larry Black, partner and manager of Peace River Packing, Fort Meade, president;
  • Vic Story Jr., president of Story Grove Service Inc., Lake Wales, northern area vice president;
  • Steve Johnson, president of Johnson Harvesting Inc., Wauchula, southern area vice president;
  • Mike Monroe, general manager of Fellsmere Farms, Fellsmere, eastern area vice president; and
  • John Barben, vice president of Sebring-based Barben Fruit Co., and Robert J. Barben Inc., interior area vice president.