In times like these, it is refreshing to take a step away for a moment and celebrate something uniquely our own — the Florida Grower Citrus Achievement Award. This year, the honor goes to Steven B. Callaham, CEO and Executive Vice President of Dundee Citrus Growers Association (Dundee CGA).
The Polk County native was born and raised in the heart of citrus country. It is where he developed a love for the crop and its people. He has spent the majority of his career in service to the state’s citrus industry.
“My life was surrounded by groves, growers, citrus-related businesses, and folks that worked in the industry,” Callaham says. “Many of them were close family friends and neighbors. Citrus was iconic, and I was always envious of the people that worked in the industry. Their work didn’t appear to be a job but more of a lifestyle. They were passionate about citrus and seemed to thoroughly enjoy what they did. That is exactly how I feel today and have felt for the past 25 years working in the industry. I love the Florida citrus industry. I love my job, and I can’t imagine doing anything different.”
Managing through HLB
Not long after graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in horticultural sciences, Callaham landed his first job in the citrus industry, working with the Lake Wales Citrus Growers Association. After four years on the job, Callaham joined the Dundee CGA to manage harvesting operations. The Lake Wales Growers Association soon after merged into Dundee CGA, along with Winter Haven Citrus Growers Association.
In 2003, only two-and-half years after joining Dundee CGA, Callaham was promoted to CEO and Executive Vice President of the cooperative. At 31, he was the youngest CEO in the history of Dundee CGA.
Two years later, HLB was confirmed in Florida for the first time. In the decade-plus since, the disease has spread across the state. Callaham says he’s proud that Dundee CGA has held ranks despite HLB.
“When the Lake Wales and Winter Haven associations merged in with Dundee CGA, we became a much larger cooperative,” Callaham says “We had more than 200 grower members and more than 10,000 acres in membership. And our numbers are still very close to that today, although our groves are not as productive as they once were due to HLB.”
Callaham oversaw a planting incentive program rolled out by Dundee CGA — one of the first in the HLB era. The program provided members a loan for new trees and planting with the understanding the loan would be forgiven if growers delivered fruit to the cooperative for a certain number of years.
“We rolled out the planting incentive program in 2012,” he says. “That was an effort to help growers to be able to spread their risk and replant fresh fruit groves that were not economically productive anymore because of HLB. That was a big help for us and provided trees for more than 1,000 acres. Today, those groves are doing well and producing fruit for us.”
Callaham adds that members have learned a lot about what varieties perform better in the presence of HLB. They also have learned how to deploy tree and root health regimes to improve quality and productivity.
Bigger and Better CUPS
While growers have learned better practices to keep trees productive, Dundee CGA has championed the effort to move groves inside out of harm’s way from the Asian citrus psyllid and HLB. Citrus under protective screen (CUPS), Callaham believes, is one way to ensure the sustainability of Dundee CGA and the industry overall.
In January 2019, Florida Grower featured the cooperative’s new CUPS complex in Polk County. The first trees were planted in phase 1 of the structures in December 2018 — 110 acres under cover. Those trees are growing fast and have set fruit for commercial harvest next season.
Phase 2 construction has been completed with planting planned for this summer. Phase 3 construction will begin this summer as well. When completed, the complex will house about 300 acres under screen. Callaham says it’s certainly the largest facility of its kind in the U.S., and as far as he knows, in the world.
“You forget how pretty and how healthy a tree can look without the HLB pressure,” Callaham says. “It is unbelievable how fast the trees have grown under the screen. We have a very intensive scouting program and have yet to find a psyllid in the structures. If we do, we have spray protocols in place to quickly manage them.”
Callaham says CUPS is an integral part of Dundee CGA’s vision for the future. In addition to the 300 acres, he says several grower members have their own CUPS already built or are in the process of construction.
“We see CUPS as a means of producing high-quality fruit at a sustainable volume,” he adds. “You walk into one of those structures and you get excited about the future. It is good for the morale of our growers, our employees, and our customers to see those trees growing like they are.”
Despite the challenges brought by HLB, and now the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus, Callaham remains optimistic.
“The Florida citrus industry has been challenged and rewarded throughout its history,” Callaham says. “Over the past decade, the industry has experienced one of its most challenging times [due to HLB]. It has been a time that has physically, psychologically, and financially tested everyone involved.
“Today, it appears we are beginning to ‘flatten the curve’ if you will. The dedication and determination of the industry as a whole will persevere through these challenges. The industry may be smaller, but those behind it are stronger than ever.”
Peaches and Blueberries Diversifying the Mix
To widen its portfolio of offerings to its customers, the Dundee Citrus Growers Association, under the leadership of Callaham, added new crops to diversify. The cooperative just completed its 10th year of peaches and wrapped up its fifth season of blueberries.
“With the productivity of citrus groves not being what they used to be due to HLB, it really caused us to look for other revenue streams,” Callaham says. “Not just for the cooperative, but also for our growers. They wanted to know how the cooperative could help them handle harvest, packing, and marketing crops other than citrus. And that’s what we did with peaches and blueberries.”
Kudos to Callaham
“As President and Chairman of the Board of Dundee Citrus Growers Association, I have watched Steven over the last 17 years evolve into one of the most effective leaders I have ever had the privilege to work with. His dedication to the growers, employees, and customers of Dundee Citrus Growers Association are second to none. He is a thorough, out-of-the-box thinker that is always staying two steps ahead of the challenges impacting our association and the industry.
“It is through his leadership that Dundee has remained relevant and competitive during the HLB era. His hard work and dedication is not limited to our association as he has taken on many roles in industry organizations. He stays focused on the problems at hand and through his calm, consensus-building leadership style looks for solutions that benefit the industry. I could not think of a more deserving individual than Steven for the Citrus Achievement Award.”
— Lindsay Raley, President and Chairman of the Board, Dundee Citrus Growers Association
“Steven is a terrific choice. He is truly a professional who is at the forefront of not only production trends, but market trends as well. He is a big reason Dundee Citrus Growers Association has been so successful all these years and one of the top global citrus brands. On top of all that business acumen, Steven is just a really nice guy.”
— Mike Sparks, Executive Vice President/CEO, Florida Citrus Mutual and 2014 Citrus Achievement Award winner
Word From the Sponsor
UPL Insecticide congratulates Steven B. Callaham, this year’s recipient of the Citrus Achievement Award. Callaham has been a loyal advocate to the citrus industry, serving on various boards and associations, including Florida Citrus Packers Association, Florida Citrus Mutual, and Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.
As CEO of the Dundee Citrus Growers Association, he has led the association through the challenges posed by citrus greening. He has provided incentives for grower-members to plant new trees to maintain volume and provide for the future. He has also allowed grower-members to diversify their operations by adding peaches and blueberries to their packing and marketing efforts. Most notably, Callaham has championed the effort to grow fresh fruit in Citrus Under Protective Screen (CUPS) structures to exclude the Asian citrus psyllid and citrus greening.
He was born and raised in Florida citrus and is dedicated to the success and longevity of the industry. Congratulations Steven B. Callaham!