Times began changing for Florida’s citrus industry in 2000 when the state initiated the effort to eradicate canker. Then 2004 and 2005 came with hurricanes that raked over citrus groves statewide, doomed the canker eradication effort, and quickened the onslaught of HLB.
Before this series of events, the state was routinely producing more than 200 million boxes of oranges every year. While everyone agrees that was too much production for market demand, the fact today’s industry is celebrating what looks to be an orange crop in the 72 million box range illustrates how times have changed. As growers wrap up the 2018-2019 campaign, there remains a belief in the future as enhanced production practices and new varieties tease out viable yields, even in the presence of HLB.
This year’s Florida Grower Citrus Achievement Award winner, Dr. Robert (Bob) Behr, has been at the helm of Citrus World/Florida’s Natural Growers as the company’s CEO during these challenging times. He has guided the cooperative that includes hundreds of grower members, covering more than 50,000 acres through these years delivering strong contract prices, incentive programs, and value-added innovations to keep the company successful as the industry awaits more permanent solutions to HLB.
The mantra to plant more trees to maintain the state’s critical citrus infrastructure has been strong in recent years. In fact, some industry insiders suggest 20 million trees need to be planted in the next decade to stay on pace.
Under Behr’s leadership, Florida’s Natural has put its money where its mouth is when it comes to planting trees. The company has established an incentive program for its members that provides a $10 per tree loan for planting. If the grower stays with the co-op for 10 commercial crops after the planting, the loan is forgiven.
“Over the past six years or so, we became concerned about our members’ fruit supply,” Behr says. “It was clear many were not planting due to the uncertainty around HLB. We put the program in place to help reduce some of the risks associated with planting in this environment.
“There are other planting programs out there, but what our members like about ours is it puts money in their hands up front to get the trees in the ground. It has been very popular and remains open today. We have growers applying for the planting incentive program on a weekly basis.”
To date, more than 1.4 million trees have been planted or are due to be planted because of the incentive program.
When HLB began cutting into production, some cited production of fewer than 100 million boxes as the tipping point for the industry’s critical infrastructure, such as juice processing. We’re well below that figure, and infrastructure has been impacted, but the industry remains. This is partly due to creative approaches to managing around declines in production.
“HLB has had an impact on our business and everybody’s business,” Behr says. “At our height back in 2003-2004, we were processing more than 20 million boxes of fruit a year at our Lake Wales facility. Then with hurricanes, canker, and HLB, that volume has dropped. Last year after Hurricane Irma, we processed less than 6 million boxes. This year, we will process about 9 million boxes.”
Behr says this has forced the cooperative to modify it’s processing capacity to rightsize for the volume of fruit coming into the plant. It also led Florida’s Natural to do things it probably would never have considered in the heydays of the early 2000s. This is where non-member business comes into play.
“Our member business is taking our cooperators’ fruit and putting it into Florida’s Natural orange juice and other products, selling it, and returning dollars after costs are taken out back to members,” Behr says. “But, we have had to find other business to complement what we do with our member fruit to generate income and spread overhead to be able to support our facility in Lake Wales and our other plant in Umatilla.”
This non-member business includes third-party bottling for other brands. Florida’s Natural recently entered into a license agreement to bottle chilled Arizona Iced Tea. Other non-member business includes packaging lemonade from juice shipped in from California. Lemonade will likely change to member business in a few years when local plantings come into production. In 2017, Florida’s Natural offered a 50,000-tree planting incentive program similar to its orange program. Co-op members jumped at the opportunity to plant lemons, driven by the strong market and the fruit’s ability to outgrow HLB.
“When you look at what is growing in the refrigerated section these days, you see teas and lemonades,” Behr says. “At the end of the day, Florida’s Natural orange juice is still and will continue to be our main product in the marketplace, but we are going to need to complement that with other things. We have to diversify and compete in that space if we are going to be viable for our customers.
“It is synergistic to what we do. Our sales people are calling on the chilled product buyers, and they expect us to be able to offer what is selling in that section of retail space.”
Rebuilding Volume and Demand
What would a rebound from HLB look like? Some in the industry say 120 million boxes of oranges is a sweet spot to work toward. Behr thinks that number is doable with enhanced production practices and new varieties and rootstocks. However, he says the industry must be cautious of market demand.
“Florida is ideally situated to provide a value-added orange juice to the U.S. market,” he says. “That being not from concentrate (NFC) or other non-concentrated products. Florida is not as competitive in producing concentrate. Brazil and Mexico probably are more competitive in that part of the business. So our sweet spot in terms of volume is going to be one that matches what the value-added NFC business is here in the U.S. Today that is probably shy of 100 million boxes, only because the market for NFC has come down quite a bit.”
To build demand back up, Behr says the industry should place a renewed emphasis on marketing Florida juice products after years of resources being placed on research to fight HLB.
“We need to work collectively as an industry to promote growth in the NFC market,” he says. “That is not easy with limited resources, but we need to work toward building back demand for NFC that has been lost since HLB came on the scene and competition increased in the chilled drink category. And, we need to fight back on the negative publicity surrounding orange juice nutrition and sugar.”
Driven by a Mission
Citrus World has enjoyed success for 85 years. Behr says that didn’t happen by accident.
“The success of Citrus World lies in the hands of our employees,” he says. “We are really mission-based, in a sense, because we are here to support our grower-owners. Our employees are steeped in creating a business our members can be proud of.
“That’s why we place such an emphasis on training and retaining people to continue that leadership, hopefully for another 85 years to come.”
Past Winners on Bob Behr
Dr. Bob Behr joins a distinguished list of 18 other growers and industry advocates who have been honored with the Florida Grower Citrus Achievement Award. He will be presented with the award during the Florida Citrus Industry Annual Conference hosted by Florida Citrus Mutual this month. Here’s what two past winners have to say about Behr’s selection.
2012 Winner Vic Story
“Bob is totally committed to the Florida citrus industry, and he knows it from top to bottom. As a grower, Bob also understands the challenges we face every day and applies that to all the roles he takes on serving the industry.”
2017 Winner Ed Pines
“Bob’s innovative approach to the industry, friendly demeanor, and business knowledge will push Florida citrus forward and foster its longevity for many generations to come. Through his superior leadership as CEO of Florida’s Natural and his multiple board positions, Bob makes a difference every day. He is the complete package, and I cannot imagine a person more deserving of this distinguished award. Myself and my team are honored to work with Bob in our joint Dundee citrus under protective screen projects, and we look forward to the future of Florida citrus knowing that Bob is involved. Job well done!”
Word From The Sponsor
UPL and MICROMITE Insect Growth Regulator congratulate Dr. Robert Behr, this year’s recipient of the Citrus Achievement Award from Florida Grower magazine. Dr. Behr is one of the industry’s most respected growers and leaders. As CEO of Florida’s Natural Growers, a cooperative of 14 grower organizations representing several hundred growers and more than 50,000 citrus acres, Dr. Behr has worked tirelessly to position Florida citrus growers for success in the face of immense industry challenges. Dr. Behr holds a doctorate in agricultural economics from the University of Florida and has served and chaired some of the industry’s most critical boards. Please join us in congratulating Dr. Robert Behr. We can think of no one more deserving of this honor.