Despite the challenges, the Florida citrus industry survives, enjoying one of the better seasons in awhile last year. But, the threats of disease, weather, and fickle markets make diversification more important than ever.
Michel Sallin, chairman and CEO of IMG Citrus, has come to his different careers with a clean slate, learning different jobs as he went. That was true in the steel business when he came to New York from his home in France in the 1970s. He was a new comer to his next job in real estate development in California and then his current profession in agriculture.
While living in New York, Sallin arranged a tour of Florida citrus for his father who was in the apple trade in France. While on the tour, he discovered red grapefruit for the first time and was hooked. “Learning has been the story of my life,” says Sallin. “When I started in citrus, I couldn’t tell the difference between an orange tree or grapefruit tree. This is where the fun is to discover something new.”
While still living in California, Sallin began a small export business, shipping Florida grapefruit to France. Because he was new to the industry, he was more open to trying a different approach to marketing. He went direct to retailers rather than selling through brokers. “The first year, we shipped only 10,000 cartons of grapefruit to France,” he says. “By the fourth year, we were shipping 400,000 cartons and doubled our shipments each year for several years following this.”
Strength In Diversity
Sallin says a big part of his company’s ability to survive and prosper despite challenges has been its focus on diversification. In 1985, Cherry Lake Tree farm was added to the company’s portfolio. Today, it spans more than 1,000 acres in its Groveland locale.
Like others in the ornamental business, the tree farm has suffered in the down economy in recent years, but is holding steady due to strong performance on the citrus side of the business. Sallin notes that Cherry Lake will be positioned to become one of the preeminent tree farms in the country when the economy recovers, because it will be in position to meet demand after many others had gone out of business.
After seeing changing conditions, Sallin also has diversified his citrus production and market. For many years, IMG Citrus packed only grapefruit, and 100% of the fruit went into the export market â€” primarily to Europe and Japan. But, canker and hurricanes changed this. “We lost a lot of grapefruit to canker eradication,” he says. “We didn’t have enough fruit to keep the packinghouse running at full capacity, so we’ve diversified the fruit we grow and pack. We now market several varieties of oranges and tangerines to our retail customers in addition to grapefruit. Since the hurricanes, we decided to pack and ship oranges and tangerines to develop our domestic market. We’ve made big changes to our business model by diversifying what we pack and the markets we ship to.”
Bullish On Fresh Grapefruit
Despite the challenges and uncertainty posed by citrus greening, Sallin believes in the future of fresh fruit, especially grapefruit. “We know for a fact there always will be a market for fresh Florida grapefruit,” he says. “It is the best tasting grapefruit in the world, so there will be a market even if rising production costs make the fruit more expensive.”
Sallin is so confident in the desirability of grapefruit that all replants are in grapefruit. About 60 acres of new plantings are added each year to the operation. He adds that the potential for Florida fresh fruit is even greater if the industry did a better job focusing on the taste of fruit rather than appearance. “The retailers have a difficult time marketing the taste of fruit, which is where we must step up as an industry to help educate consumers about the taste advantage Florida fruit has,” he says.