Florida Citrus Growers Plan for Future Growth

Spirits were up last week in Bonita Springs, FL, as nearly 700 growers and industry stakeholders gathered for the 2019 Florida Citrus Industry Annual Conference hosted by Florida Citrus Mutual. Most groves across the state saw a bounce back after the previous season, which was marred by the effects of Hurricane Irma.


Without question, the 800-pound gorilla hanging over all of the conference’s various meetings and activities was the fate of the Citrus Research and Development Foundation (CRDF) following a recent dust-up with the University of Florida’s (UF) board of trustees. The Foundation is a direct service organization (DSO) affiliated with the university but set up as a legally separated, nonprofit entity.

The CRDF was founded in 2009 to collect and funnel box tax dollars, paid by growers and other funds, toward research primarily aimed at seeking solutions to HLB. Since its inception, it has directed about 64% of its grants to
UF/IFAS, with other funds allocated to other universities and research institutions.

Recently, the UF board of trustees sought changes in how the DSO would operate, requiring all research dollars be directed to UF/IFAS, and that the board would have final approval on proposed research projects. According to leadership at the CRDF, that plan was a non-starter, and it was the topic of much discussion during the gathering.

Rick Dantzler, Chief Operating Officer of CRDF, said — during the conference — it appeared the Foundation would more than likely split with the university due to the rule changes.

However, in the weeks following the event an agreement was reached that satisfied both parties.

“CRDF [under the new agreement] will continue operating as it has since 2009, and we will seek clarification from the state legislature during the next session that we have the authority to do so,” Dantzler said. “UF would like that to be made clearer in the statute so they can be more comfortable with our funding research with institutions other than UF/IFAS, which is fine with us. So, CRDF will continue to award research contracts for the best proposals regardless of where they come from.”

Dantzler added the university has requested authority to review research agreements for form, not scientific judgment. CRDF would not have a problem with this type of review.

“We’ll also discuss how to add a member of the UF board of trustees to the CRDF board,” he said. “We don’t object to this, but we are currently limited to 13 board members, and that’s what we have. I’m sure we can work it out, though.”

Let’s Talk Juice
Discussions surrounding the definition of orange juice focused on a wider description of oranges and exemptions, which would allow processors to blend in fruit that is more available and more tolerant to HLB to help address supply challenges, especially in the early season.

During the education program, Dr. Ed Stover, a Research Horticulturist with USDA, addressed this topic. Stover pointed out the tolerance ‘Sugar Belle’ has shown to HLB, and that it has good juice characteristics. ‘SunDragon’ also shows strong tolerance to HLB across many locations. Stover noted juice produced from this variety was indistinguishable from commercial sweet oranges and won the top spot for most preferred juice when blended with a high-quality sweet orange-like mandarin during a recent display day demonstration.

“This absolutely is going to be an industry-driven process, and now is the time to get the discussion going,” Stover said. “It is going to take a lot of work.”

Super High-Density Plantings
Growers have recognized that higher-density plantings provide benefits of bringing trees into production faster in the era of HLB. But, Dr. Clay Pederson, Managing Director of Agromillora Florida, suggests kicking high density up a notch. His super high-density plantings resemble those of olives and apples and provide a number of benefits in regard to HLB and labor.

During the conference, Pederson outlined two spacings — 14’ x 5’ totaling 622 trees per acre and 12’ x 4’ totaling 908 trees per acre. These configurations, planted on dwarfing rootstocks (US 897 and UFR6), have performed well). With continuous hedging, it will provide earlier, higher production as well as better fruit and juice quality. They also provide indirect benefits when it comes to HLB by allowing better penetration of insecticides and other inputs in the canopy and a smaller impact when a tree or two dies when compared to more conventional spacing.

Pederson said a major benefit enabled by super high density is the ability to mechanically harvest the trees for juice plantings. Continuous hedging and topping will produce a tree in an 8-foot to 10-foot height range that is about 3-feet wide. This allows harvest with machines like the Oxbo 6430 and New Holland Braud 9090X.

“This is not the old shaker harvest concept where we tried to mechanical harvest around existing trees,” Pederson said. “Here, we are growing the trees to the machine. And, they are very efficient, picking 90% to 95% of the fruit with very light tree and fruit damage.”

Getting Crafty
Conference attendees received an update on a new program called Citrus Research and Field Trials — CRAFT for short. The program will feature large-scale grower field trials planted on 5,000 acres over the next few years. These trials will utilize and test the latest knowledge in best practices including new plantings, grove design, plant preparation, pest management, and post-plant production practices.

CRAFT will reimburse growers 50% of their planting and production costs if they agree to participate in the program. In return for the financial support, growers must keep detailed and consistent data of their production practices, such as dates and rates of various input applications and other practices. The goal is to determine which existing and new technologies and practices produce the best yields and quality in the face of HLB.

Florida Citrus Mutual is working with FDACS to create a DSO to oversee management and finance of CRAFT. Requests for funding have been submitted to USDA and other entities.

Mike Sparks, Florida Citrus Mutual’s CEO, noted that there are many details yet to be worked out, but this could be a great means to get more trees in the ground. “The goal is to provide growers with the confidence to replant and rebuild the Florida citrus industry to a level that will sustain existing infrastructure and ultimately drive expansion,” he said.

A Toast of OJ to Dr. Bob Behr
Thursday night’s banquet at the Florida Citrus Industry Annual Conference featured the Florida Grower Citrus Achievement Award trophy presentation. The award is supported by longtime sponsor UPL, formerly Arysta LifeScience.

This year’s award winner, Dr. Bob Behr, is the CEO of Florida’s Natural Growers. Behr has led the grower-owned OJ cooperative through the lean years of HLB and has been successful in securing good prices for members’ fruit and seeking other non-member business such as third-party packing to keep its plant facilities operating and viable as orange volume has been reduced by HLB.

Upon receiving the trophy, Behr said he was humbled by the honor and that it was an extension of the many great employees and grower-owners of Florida’s Natural.