When you consider the challenges facing Florida’s citrus industry, it is clear that much will be expected from the next generation of leaders taking the reins of responsibility. T.P. Kennedy is one of those young people, taking an active management role in his family’s grove and packinghouse business, as well as becoming an advocate at the industry level.
Kennedy is quick to point to his family’s heritage in the citrus business as a cornerstone of his ability to lead. As a fourth generation Floridian, his family history dates back to the 1840s when his great grandfather Rev. John Kennedy moved his family to Florida from South Carolina.
The family’s first grove was planted in the 1850s outside of Gainesville. In 1909, the family planted its first grove in the Indian River area, which the family still owns part of to this day. The family business thrived in the Indian River and today about 4,500 acres are planted — mostly grapefruit.
In 1966, Kennedy Groves joined with five other well-known citrus families to build the United Indian River Packers packinghouse. In 1988, Kennedy Groves purchased the remaining stock of the original owners, becoming the sole owner of the operation.
Best Quality Wins
Kennedy says they’ve built their customer base on consistent quality fruit. “The Indian River is known worldwide for its grapefruit, so that is what we are focusing on over here,” he says. “Since we grow most all of what we pack, we can provide quality fruit to our buyers year in and year out. Because of the Indian River’s reputation, we can sell more fruit than we can pack. We just need more volume.”
Volume is challenged by the threat of HLB. “Greening is prevalent here on the East Coast,” says Kennedy. “We are just learning to grow with it while we wait for some research or new varieties that help us deal with it.”
Their greening program includes aggressive psyllid control and a slightly modified version of the Maury Boyd nutritional program.
On the River, canker still reigns as a significant concern. “We put a lot into canker management,” says Kennedy. “We are spraying on 21-day intervals and reducing inoculm. In most of our groves, we can obtain European Union canker-free certification. But it is a lot of work to get them there.”
Disease pressure has not quelled Kennedy’s enthusiasm for citrus. Last summer, 450 acres of new grapefruit was planted with more plantings planned. “We have about 1,000 acres of trees planted that are less than seven years old,” he says. “We are thinking outside the box on how we plant and manage these new groves. We are planting at higher density and managing trees intensively to get a return on investment sooner.”
Kennedy is working with UF/IFAS researchers in one of their groves on a high-density planting with open hydroponics, utilizing drip irrigation to spoon feed citrus trees nutrients.
Transparency Drives Demand
Attend any agricultural meeting where emerging trends are covered and “transparency” quickly surfaces as the newest buzzword. There is growing demand from consumers across the globe to know more about the origins of the food they eat. Thus, buyers in the chain are demanding more information from growers and packers.
Global G.A.P. certification is a comprehensive means of providing transparency in production and food safety. “We could not sell a box of grapefruit overseas without Global G.A.P.,” says Kennedy. “We have all our groves and packinghouse certified. Food safety is a top priority and the best way to prevent a problem is doing all the right steps on the front end. Global G.A.P. is a good system for this worldwide. When customers call, the first question they ask is ‘Are you Global G.A.P.?’”
As the Food Safety Modernization Act begins to deploy, Kennedy says its Global G.A.P. certification has their business ahead of the curve. For those feeling the impact of the new law, he says recordkeeping will be the name of the game.
“If you are starting from scratch, it will be a little overwhelming,” he says. “Recordkeeping is the biggest part of it and you must keep records of everything you do. There is the saying, if you didn’t write it down, you didn’t do it.”
All cartons leaving the packinghouse have a GTIN bar code, so they have traceability back to the grove sub-block and down to the row. Every year, audits are conducted (two days in the groves and one day in the packinghouse) to ensure Global G.A.P. certification.
The company’s website carries through with the transparency theme with a section dedicated to growing practices including fertility, spray programs, and irrigation. “We are finding more and more customers want access to this type of information,” Kennedy says.