A positive attitude and “roll-up-your-sleeves” work ethic are traits of effective leaders. Citrus greening has tested the attitude of the entire citrus industry and called all of our leaders to pitch in to help defeat this unprecedented foe.
One of those leaders is Marty McKenna. He has served the industry in many capacities even before greening came along, and he believes in the future of Florida citrus. For those reasons, McKenna also is the 2016 Florida Grower® magazine Citrus Achievement AwardSM winner.
“I am confident the industry will rebuild after greening,” McKenna says. “And the reason why is Florida happens to be the best place to grow juice oranges on this planet. Without greening, we can compete with anybody.”
Currently, McKenna, along with his brother Pat, operates McKenna Brothers Inc., which grows and manages citrus in Polk, DeSoto, Hendry, and Lee counties. His wife Karen is actively involved in the business, too.
Mentors And Service
McKenna has served in leadership roles on just about all the committees, boards, and commissions that matter in Florida citrus. He says his mentor taught him about the importance of getting involved and serving.
“Probably the biggest asset to my career in citrus was when I was hired by Joe L. Davis Sr. in 1991 to run his groves and ranch,” he says. “I worked with him closely — on a daily basis — until 1995. “He was very good to me, allowing me to learn what he had learned about the industry through the school of hard knocks. The 14 years I spent working with him was probably the biggest blessing I had coming into this industry.”
Besides production and business knowledge, Davis also demonstrated service is an important role. And, the fact the industry is small and tightly situated geographically means individuals can make a difference by serving.
“Watching his dedication instructed me being active in an industry as unique as ours. We can help people,” McKenna says. “We all are so intertwined whether it be growers, service guys, harvest people, hauling guys, custom applicators, real estate people, all the way up to the juice plants.
“When you look at Florida citrus juice production, there is no other crop uniquely situated like ours in such a small space. I think that is what has contributed to our ability to grow this industry into what it became despite all kinds of challenges like freezes, hurricanes, canker, and other pests. And, it allows people to get involved with the industry and help make a difference.”
Advocacy In Critical Times
McKenna’s first active service was as President of the Florida Citrus Production Managers Association. It was during this time that production managers began to advocate for a box tax.
“Norman Todd (2003 Citrus Achievement Award winner) really ushered the box tax through, but it was in the Production Managers Association where the idea was born. It was there where I learned that even a small group could have a big impact.”
Next up, McKenna served as President of the Highlands Country Citrus Growers Association (HCCGA). It was in another consequential time when BMPs were being developed for citrus.
“We were in a process with the state of Florida to initiate nitrate BMPs on the Ridge,” McKenna says. “The HCCGA was very involved in putting those together. It was very interesting to be involved with a regulatory issue. As growers, we didn’t particularly like the idea of anybody telling us how to farm, but we also realized the need for it as we got involved with the regulatory agencies.”
McKenna says working with all the stakeholders in developing BMPs was a good exercise in bringing together people with divergent opinions and points of view. That learning was good preparation for his next service as the President of Florida Citrus Mutual.
“When I served at Mutual, it was a very unique time because we were in the peak of the canker eradication program,” he says. “Myself, Mutual board members, and staff made many trips to Washington, DC, during that time to testify. As fortunate as we are to have Adam Putnam as Commissioner of Agriculture, we were extremely fortunate to have him as our Congressman in DC during that time.”
Mutual’s involvement and Putnam’s support was instrumental in ensuring growers were compensated for the thousands of trees lost to the program. The next calamities to visit Florida citrus — Charley, Jeanne, and Frances — brought an end to the eradication program.
“The hurricanes spread canker all over the state,” McKenna says. “One of the first people to say the funding was over was Adam, because we knew it had to spread too far. But, we were able to end the program with growers getting compensated for the trees they lost.”
From canker, the industry turned toward hurricane relief. This had McKenna and Mutual back in Washington to develop a disaster relief package for citrus growers.
“At the time, Jeb [Bush] was governor and George Bush was President, so we were working to come up with some form of relief for citrus growers, which had not been done before. The Bush Administration, through the work of Mutual, developed the Hurricane Disaster Relief Program. The hard work we put in for the eradication effort, paved the way for relief effort. The integrity of our industry was well established in Washington, DC, and I believe that helped us with the hurricanes.”
“Marty was instrumental in helping the industry obtain almost $500 million in hurricane relief after 2004 and 2005,” says Mike Sparks, Executive Vice President and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual. Sparks also was the 2014 Citrus Achievement Award winner. “He was able to communicate the perspective of the Florida citrus grower in an understandable way.”
The hurricane work culminated with President Bush and Gov. Bush coming to Florida and touring one of McKenna’s groves.
“It was a blessing to be able to be a part of the process and the money helped the growers get out of a bind,” he says. “And, to have the President and Governor come to our grove for a visit was one heck of a cool experience.”
While McKenna served as Mutual President, the landmark antidumping campaign against Brazil was ongoing.
“Marty was able to give a grower’s perspective to not only the Florida Congressional delegation, but also the International Trade Commission,” Sparks says. “His unique perspective and ability to communicate ultimately helped lead us to the antidumping order that has benefited Florida growers immeasurably.”
McKenna’s most recent leadership role was serving as Chairman of the Florida Department of Citrus. He has stepped down as Chairman but remains a member of the Commission.
The Department of Citrus is feeling the impact of greening with recent calls to significantly cut its budget and tax rates. McKenna says this is the reality of the times the industry finds itself in with this disease.
“Unfortunately, we are currently at a point where marketing is not really feasible,” he says. “However, as the industry rebuilds, marketing Florida citrus will be more important than ever. We must maintain growers’ ability to market their products through the Florida Department of Citrus.
What About Greening?
McKenna says Florida’s citrus industry has rebounded and rebuilt many times. He has rebuilt and replanted his own groves, and through his service, has helped others do the same.
“As citrus growers, we are not opposed to starting over and we have in the past after freezes, hurricanes, and even canker,” he says. “But, the challenge with greening is the uncertainty of what happens to those trees we replant? Can we ever get them grown enough and producing enough to return our investment when greening is out there?”
In recent years, McKenna Brothers Inc. has planted about 20,000 trees annually. He observes the challenge for young trees hits at around six years.
“It is heartbreaking to see young trees that look gorgeous for the first three years, and then by the time they hit six years old, they just are not picking any fruit. The majority of the industry has been replanting, but I think these six-and eight-year-old trees falling off is a big part of production losses in boxes the past couple of years.”
Having worked closely with the scientific community, McKenna is optimistic answers to the greening problem will be found. Researchers have a number of promising leads in the greening fight. The recent crisis declaration to allow the use of certain antimicrobial products also provides some hope.
“Hopefully, these antimicrobial products will help us produce more boxes with the trees we have in the ground,” McKenna says. “Then, we as growers can be little more patient while these new, more tolerant varieties come online or other technology is developed to help us with the disease.”
When asked what he enjoys most about growing citrus, McKenna says it is the community of individuals who make the industry.
“I like interacting with people on daily basis,” he says. “The guys driving the tractors, harvesting the fruit, or selling the fertilizer — all of these folks help make this industry what it is. I have been fortunate in my career to have a lot of people show interest in me and my success. That has meant a great deal to me over the years.”
Arysta LifeScience and MICROMITE® Insect Growth Regulator proudly recognize Marty McKenna, recipient of the 2016 Florida Grower Citrus Achievement Award from Florida Grower magazine. As a fruit crops major, graduating from the University of Florida, Marty joined the citrus community following graduation and has never looked back, working tirelessly to elevate the industry. He worked as a production manager for Joe L. Davis and has held leadership positions on numerous industry boards, including the Florida Citrus Production Managers Association and the Florida Citrus Commission.
Additionally, as president of Florida Citrus Mutual, he led efforts against Brazilian importers in an anti-dumping lawsuit and also fought for canker eradication dollars for growers as well as federal disaster funding following three hurricanes. Currently, Marty manages his own citrus property, where he is heavily involved in both caretaking and harvest. Please join us in congratulating Marty McKenna on this well-deserved honor!
The 2016 Citrus Achievement Award will be presented June 16 at the Florida Citrus Industry Annual Conference in Bonita Springs.