Marvin Kahn heads outside Sebring,Fla., where he has an office near the center of town, to check a harvest crew’s progress in his Murcott tangerines. Along the way, he points to a grove with young Valencia trees interspersed among large old ones.
“That’s my Dad’s first grove, the one he bought in 1933, the year I was born,” Kahn says. “I still own it. It’s been a good grove. Some of those trees are probably a century old. They were already producing when he bought it — they’ve survived freezes and all kinds of things. Of course, some have to be replaced as time goes on.”
Kahn’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from Lithuania and came to Sebring in 1923. His father died at a relatively young age, which turned his mother into a citrus grower. Naturally, Kahn helped out, then studied citrus and cattle at the University of Florida, and returned to Sebring to found the grove management business he still runs.
“I discovered it was more economically feasible to buy equipment and do the things you need to do if you had more acreage to spread the costs,” Kahn says. “That motivated me to get in the grove management business.”
Today, Kahn has several employees and owns about one-third of the acreage he manages. Through the years, he’s been on more than his share of industry boards and committees, including serving on the Florida Citrus Commission 1971-1979.
That still didn’t make him consider himself an industry insider, however, and he has a tendency to poke and prod the citrus organizations and bureaucracies.
That’s why Kahn revived Jim Griffiths’ Citrus Grower Associates organization. Griffiths, inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame in 1998, received the Citrus Achievement Award in 2006, the year he died at age 91.
After serving in the Pacific Theater in World War II, Griffiths worked as a University of Florida biological control specialist at Lake Alfred, then as a fertilizer company researcher before becoming Florida Citrus Mutual’s director of special projects from 1968 until retiring in 1981. He refused to actually retire, however, and founded Citrus Grower Associates.
Griffiths says he saw himselfas a liaisonbetween the group’s members and government, as well as other industry organizations.
Kahn sat on that group’s board of directors. He developed a great appreciation for Griffiths’ methods of promoting the industry’s causes and how he tended to be a one-man operation.
“You might have been on his board, but you listened to what he said,” Kahn says. “Jim was the kind of man who just took charge of things. He was very astute. You actually were required to put up $1,000 to be on his board of directors. I did it because of the admiration and respect I had for him.”
After Griffiths died, the association went dormant. Kahn eventually found himself in possession of the numerous newsletters Griffiths issued through the years and helped make them available on a website.
“He was a very prolific writer, and he had widespread interests in the citrus industry. His two subjects were research and marketing. He developed a real avid interest in marketing.”
Kahn decided Griffiths had been onto something good and set about resurrecting the old association, this time naming it Florida Citrus Growers Associates.
“Jim was a little ahead of himself — and that’s what he and I have in common,” Kahn says.
Right now, Florida Citrus Growers Associates, Inc., has a board of directors but, beyond that, no members. Members might help grab policymakers’ attention, and could be nice to have, but Kahn believes he can work through the group to make his voice heard in the industry, much as Griffiths did.
But Kahn does not planfor the groupto be a one-man show, dominated by its leader.
“I want the board’s support in helping me formulate good ideas and thoughts on setting policies. I want to be operating through the strength of the board rather than it being just me,” he says.
“I’m interested in very practical applications of what it’s going to take to sustain our industry. We’ve got a lot of symptoms in Florida citrus that show weaknesses — the inventory of trees and crops, the influence of exotic diseases, the encroachment by development.”
Kahn is most interested in focusing industry research in what he sees as the proper direction.
“My organization and I personally are a real proponent of theFlorida Department of Citrus. It’s an asset unique to us and something that should be protected and utilized to its fullest extent. I’m an idealist — I see the glass half full rather than half empty. There are two good examples of the department’s value to us.
“Ed Taylor, who was executive of the department of citrus back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, promoted the industry and found Anita Bryant to be the face of it. He really is the reason we’re all here; he developed juice as a commodity.
“The second thingis Brazil becoming a source for citrus. Florida citrus people took the citrus business to Brazil and, since then, that has caused all sorts of conversation.
“Our citrus supply was cyclical. Somebody had the idea of having huge storage facilities for the juice to make it less cyclical. Instead, they came up with Brazil as an idea to help with the growth in the citrus market.”
Kahn’s new group is not designed to compete with any existing citrus organization, he says. “We are not competing with Florida Citrus Mutual or with anybody, for that matter.”
He envisions a lean organization that can act quickly.
“I don’t want the goal of this group to be to stay organized as a group and to spend a lot of time and assets keeping members and getting members. We’d like to have members, not for money but because we need members to carry more weight and influence. So I’m inviting membership and I’m inviting questions and interest in what we’re doing.”
He’d like to see industry research return to the old Ed Taylor era, focusing more on marketing than agronomics. He believes some current research projects duplicate other efforts in the industry, and that funding for research should be shared by both Florida and Brazilian citrus interests.
“It’s not that we don’t need research on greening — it’s that we need more than that. That does not need to be the only thing. We lived off Ed Taylor and Anita Bryant for years, and that kind of thing is what we need now.
“I’d like to see the Florida Citrus Commission, for example, get an executive director who is high on marketing and emphasize a growing market.
“We know our Florida production is limited, and we know it has been declining through the years because of development and other reasons. But we need to grow the market and we need new products.
“We should be willingto use imported juice to supply that market. We want to take the Florida sunshine tree symbol that belongs to the Department of Citrus and market under it. We could mix with 75 percent Florida juice and 25 percent imported juice, if necessary, and grow the market.”
He wants to see Brazilian citrus industry representatives more involved with Florida’s citrus leaders. That includes taxing their juice entering the U.S., to share advertising costs.
“We could let the importers be on our boards and let them have a say in how the business could expand in Europe and every other place. We could do this expansion with quality control so the juice could be the best that money can buy.
“Nothing I’m suggesting would deter consumption. It would make the juice more consistent. Put the sunshine tree label on it and it’ll be dependably good. Do what’s necessary to assure quality.
“It’s more difficult to competein the marketplace than ever — people can be inundated with new products. But there are new opportunities out there.
“Right now, the Department of Citrus is not even thinking about it. They don’t have scientists working on these things. You know, two scientists invented frozen juice concentrate. That changed the world, even for apples and other fruits. But right now at the Department of Citrus, they don’t have anybody with their minds on these things.”
He knows changing any industry is a tough challenge. His goal is to make the citrus business better, to help it take that next step.
“I have no animosity, no ill feeing, no desire to harm any grower organization. I want to influence them — making them strong is my goal. No revolution has started; that’s not what I want.
“I’m saying we should get the politics out of the Florida Citrus Commission and have the five grower organizations, along with the processors and packers, nominate candidates to the commission’s board of directors. Then have a vetting committee and give what they come up with to the growers for a vote.”
Not surprisingly, those ideas were not warmly welcomed by the current commission, he says. “I told them it’s unfortunate that whose idea it is, is what’s important. I’m not talking about the commission members we have now — they’re good people. I just think the way it’s handled should be less political.”
All this gets just a small part of Kahn’s time. “I have other things to do, and I’m not paid to do this. I’ve got 100 to 150 customers of one sort or another and I have to take care of their needs first. But I’m interested in making this industry better, because it is my future and the future of my customers.
“The secret to life is figuring out how to help someone else. I think I’m working for the whole industry. I’m only an outsider, in that I’m not a member of the establishment. As the clock ticks, everything changes. Staff members, senators, Congress members change, all the time. People’s attitudes change all the time. To be a vital industry, we have to keep changing, too.”