California Citrus Leader Sounds Off

Joel Nelsen, California Citrus Mutual

What does California Citrus Mutual do? Can you provide a brief history?

California Citrus Mutual (CCM) was formed in 1977 by San Joaquin Valley growers to provide information and education relative to dynamics affecting revenue per acre. Originally established to discuss and inform about the market place environment, it has evolved into that and much more. It is now a statewide voluntary grower membership program involved in information, and education. It works with policy makers, growers, media, and the customer base to create and sustain the appropriate environment to achieve industry economic objectives. We have a staff of seven now. I work primarily in the public policy arena and we retain firms in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. to help us achieve our objective. Our weekly newsletter, “Market Memo,” was and is the cornerstone of our success. It provides growers with an accurate assessment of prices per size and grade for growers to determine potential revenue per acre for their operation. This in turn enables them to help make the best harvesting decisions with their shipper. At the outset of each season after the crop estimate is released by USDA, “Market Memo” disseminates a cost sheet and subsequent estimate or goal for marketers to achieve in order that growers receive a positive economic return. The CCM effort has evolved into affecting the marketing environment for our industry for trade, regulation, and public policy.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What’s your background?

I have had the pleasure of being with CCM for 31 years. Prior to this position I worked in a communications position for the fresh produce industry in Southern California. My knowledge base emanates from having grown up with a family and father who upon retirement was vice president of produce operations for a major chain, and I worked in the produce departments at the retail level through college. I have a BA Degree in Communications from Cal State University, Fullerton. Throughout the years I have been chair for various industry committees and presently serve as chair for the USDA/USTR Trade Advisory Committee on fruits and vegetables. I have been a guest lecturer at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo for a senior agricultural public policy class. In 2009 “The Packer” newspaper somehow dubbed me as one of the 25 most influential members of industry affecting public policy.

Western Fruit Grower is still relatively new to the California citrus industry. What’s the one thing about it that we should know?

That notwithstanding a few big players, the industry is overwhelmingly family farmer dominated. It has 3,900 producers, 100 shippers. It is an industry that competes feverishly in the marketplace, but has the ability to work together on issues affecting the industry. The industry is also one of the oldest fruit industries, if not the oldest, having started 120 years ago in Southern California. Those original growers eventually formed a marketing organization that is one of the proudest and best known in fresh fruits and vegetables, Sunkist Growers. The original navel orange tree, from Brazil, is still alive in Riverside, CA, and has been deemed a historical treasure.

What one facet of the California citrus industry would come as the biggest surprise to a grower of another crop?

The spirit that exists for problem solving is real and exciting. We recently changed our navel orange maturity standard in which 95% of the industry supported the effort. We initiated an assessment program, without a grower vote, to tackle the Asian Citrus Psyllid issue. CCM collects real-time market place data for grower information and most of the industry cooperates. There is no “liars’ club” in our industry. Accuracy and information integrity on a weekly basis was a foundation for our existence. There are other examples, but at CCM we can call on all parties to achieve an objective. Within “our room” there are no labels, no marketing affiliations; just growers trying to achieve an objective. When motivated we are not afraid of tackling the “big issues” nor afraid of losing. We have challenged one administration politically and legally to achieve a trade objective. We joined with two industry organizations in California to defeat two extreme State Assembly office holders against overwhelming odds. The credibility and integrity of our industry has allowed us continued access to a string of governors, our two senators, more than two dozen congressional offices on a continuing basis, and a host of administration officials at the state and federal level. You don’t achieve that ability by having an industry in war with itself. We speak as a unit.

The biggest issue facing your industry in the next several years is obviously Asian citrus psyllid, which is a vector of the incurable disease Huanglongbing, or citrus greening. How do you think your industry will fare in the face of ACP/HLB?

Well right now we are faring better than everybody else! We are aggressively looking for HLB before HLB finds the commercial citrus industry. The industry has assessed itself $15 million per annum, now three years old, to better protect itself. We are spending money in tandem with Florida colleagues to find a cure for the disease. We are striving to buy time by finding the vector, suppressing the spread, and looking for the disease.

After one of several visits to Florida, growers determined that the industry could not be caught flat-footed. Legislation was drafted, introduced, and signed by the governor in less than six months to establish a game plan and create a strategic partnership with government to address the problem. I would stipulate that it continues to be an excellent case study for commodities to address invasive pest issues. Industry cannot count on government to the job. We have no choice but to address it ourselves.

You have said that the California citrus industry is very different from the Florida industry, which has really struggled with HLB. Can you explain the difference between the two states’ citrus industries?

The major difference relative to ACP/HLB is that we took aggressive action before ACP was endemic in California. It is now endemic in certain counties. Florida didn’t discover the problem until after the fact. Because they are juice-oriented they can dilute the scope of the problem. As an industry entirely devoted to fresh fruit sales for revenue, each and every piece of fruit on a tree has to be flavorful. We have learned from the mistakes made in other production areas.

Florida, other than grapefruit, is a processed juice industry. Now, I don’t wish to alienate their orange industry, but their fresh production and sales are minimal compared to that produced in California. Florida has considerable more tonnage than California, but the economic value of the respective industries is on par with each other according to USDA figures. USDA acknowledges in a variety of proposed rules that we are the dominant producer of fresh citrus for the nation.

The development of our seedless mandarin industry has created excitement for the entire California citrus industry. We have the Cara Cara variety of navel orange that has created excitement at retail and consumer levels. Where once we were concerned about cannibalization, the issue for retailers is how do they allocate more shelf space to an historic industry that is reinventing itself.

Lastly, to end on a more free-thinking note, if you could have dinner with one person who is either alive today or from the pages of history, who would it be and why?

I would select Ronald Reagan. The former President was never the smartest man in the room, but everybody else always worked for him. He had an ability to take the input, synthesize it, and disseminate a message that created support and inspired people to work together. He didn’t always make the right decision but he was never afraid to make a decision. He didn’t suffer from paralysis by analysis and the vast majority of his decisions, comments, and leadership provided this country an historical period of prosperity and leadership for the world and America.

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