Opinion: Sleepless In Citrus Country

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The week of January 4–11 is going to be remembered around the Florida citrus industry as the freeze that wouldn’t go away. Honestly, I can’t recall anything like the number of cold days we had in a row, and neither can any growers I talk to who have a much deeper institutional knowledge of Florida citrus than I do.

The freeze caused considerable frozen fruit as well as twig and leaf damage. Mutual did hear of several growers cutting solid ice. We are still trying to determine whether there was significant long-term tree damage. As we all know, those things play out over time.

Scanning The Scene

The north (Lake County) and west side of the citrus belt along Pasco, East Hillsborough, Western Polk, Desoto, Hardee, and Hendry appeared to receive the brunt of cold temperatures on January 10–11. The Central region and Indian River region appeared to come through the week in OK shape but there could be isolated or low-lying areas where damage occurred. This was good news for our fresh grapefruit industry.

Temperatures on the Ridge over the weekend of the 10th and 11th were colder than expected and did significant damage in some groves. The outcome can often be a block-by-block situation. I stood in groves after the freeze where one side of the road was wrecked and the other side came out fine.

Breaking The Ice

While growers worked hard to keep their trees protected during the cold snap, Mutual did its part. Since our founding in 1948, our organization has been looked to by members as a source of accurate weather information. Throughout the freeze, our field staff was in constant communication with their grower contacts to determine what was happening. The staff briefed me and our communications department each morning to make sure everyone had good information when the media came calling. And boy, did they come calling. Over the course of the week, Mutual fielded more than 100 inquiries from The Weather Channel to CNN to the New York Times and to the Lake Wales News. Publications in Canada, France, and even Japan contacted us to get updates. The inquiries led to several hundred articles across the globe on Florida’s citrus crop. In fact, I did a Google search on “Florida Citrus Mutual” on January 12th and more than 600 stories popped up.

Real News

I could chalk the media crush up to a slow news day, but what the flood of calls really tell me is that Florida citrus is still relevant and the public cares about our crop and our product. Growers should be proud of that fact. People want to know if they will be able to buy Florida orange juice and fresh citrus. Can you imagine how we would feel if a freeze hit and nobody called?

Our communications strategy during the freeze extended to Florida’s elected officials and I want to acknowledge their efforts. Mutual was able to host U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, Gov. Charlie Crist, and U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio on grove tours so they could see the effects first hand. Thanks to Putnam, Commissioner Charles Bronson, and Gov. Crist for acting so quickly to get a disaster declaration request to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack. The Florida citrus industry also appreciates Crist and Bronson’s efforts in easing trucking restrictions for four weeks in January so our harvesters could get salvaged fruit out of the grove and to the processing plant.

A Hardy Bunch

Let me tell you the strength and resiliency of the Florida citrus grower was once again on display in this time of crisis. Despite sleepless nights for more than a week and frayed nerves, growers still seemed upbeat in the days after the freeze. Once again, they are confident we can rebound from this weather event like we have so many times. I applaud you and your families.

As we move forward, I can assure you Mutual will disseminate the latest, most accurate information to our membership. We also will continue to talk to state and federal elected officials and regulators to ensure they are aware of the situation and making decisions to assist the Florida citrus grower.

Mike Sparks is the executive vice president/CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual.

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