Florida Grower Selects 2014 Citrus Achievement Award Winner

Photo by Frank Giles
Mike Sparks, Florida Citrus Mutual. Photo by Frank Giles

The political process has been jokingly referred to as similar to making sausage — it is better to see the laws, not how they are made. It is hard work that often goes with little thanks and always an uncertainty of how political winds will blow.
In November 2010, it was becoming clear that the fight against HLB was shaping up to be a life-and-death battle for Florida’s citrus industry. That month, a group of industry stakeholders gathered in the offices of Florida Citrus Mutual to hash out research-related goals to help the industry survive the spread of the endemic disease.

In summary, the goals sought to secure dedicated, significant, and long-term funding for research into citrus diseases and pests. Nearly four years of hard work later and a few detours along the way, this was achieved with the signing of the 2014 Farm Bill. The bill directs $125 million in mandatory spending for citrus research over the next five years.

It is a huge shot in the arm to an industry in dire need of good news. Inclusion of a citrus-only provision took stakeholders throughout the industry to step up and advocate on behalf of not just Florida citrus, but also California and Texas.
It took a maestro of a million moving parts to manage and keep up with all the different factions that came into play in this political process. That maestro is the 2014 Florida Grower Citrus Achievement Award winner — Mike Sparks, the executive vice president and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual.
“To my mind, the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill with this citrus provision is one of Florida Citrus Mutual’s greatest achievements,” Sparks says. “It truly couldn’t have been accomplished without a unified front of growers, researchers, lawmakers, lobbyists, and our staff here at Mutual working toward our goal.
“We’ve placed our faith in research to find long- and near-term solutions to greening. We were all in for dedicated, significant, and long-term funding. I was fortunate to be in sort of an air traffic controller role as the process played out.”

A Look Back

According to Sparks, it is worth looking back in time to appreciate how citrus was able to carve out a dedicated place in the Farm Bill — a feat never accomplished before. First and foremost, his 40-plus years working in the citrus industry was significant in building the needed relationships for the Farm Bill fight. Those years taught him the critical importance of grower involvement and oversight.
“Before joining Florida Citrus Mutual, I worked for more than 30 years with the Florida Department of Citrus (FDOC), holding just about every administrative role in the agency,” he says. “The FDOC gave me a great opportunity to work closely with 30 years’ worth of Florida citrus commissioners. It really allowed me to get to know the growers and processors and their concerns, and set me up well for my new work at Mutual, which started in 2006.”

Sparks says the industry made a wise decision going back to the box tax days to insist on grower oversight on funds.
“This concept of grower oversight has continued with the Citrus Research and Development Foundation (CRDF), which is hugely important,” he says. “The CRDF board of directors and other committees are made up primarily of growers. Their very livelihoods and generations of their families have depended on Florida citrus. By its very nature, you know they are going to make smart decisions when it comes to the survival of this industry.”
In the early days of HLB research, it was described as a Manhattan Project scenario because very little was known about the disease.
“We called the areas we were focusing on stovepipes of research,” Sparks says. “We were looking at the psyllid, trying to understand the disease itself, and seeking a resistant tree in the future.
“In recent years, we’ve seen some redirection of research funds to focus on what can be done now to keep these trees productive. If we can’t keep these trees productive today, we’ll never get to that tree of the future. The redirection of these dollars is an excellent example of stakeholder oversight of the CRDF and its allocation of resources. Those growers on the board have the sense of urgency to survive. You might not get that from some bureaucrat.”

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