Florida Citrus Mutual: A busy season

Florida Citrus Mutual once again hosted the Florida Citrus Industry Annual Conference in June. This year’s event drew 650 people to the Coconut Point Hyatt in Bonita Springs.

Now that the dog days of summer are upon us, it is a good time to reflect on the busy 2010-2011 season at Florida Citrus Mutual.

High fruit prices buoyed the spirits of Florida growers during the year — a fantastic development. Although prices will most surely adjust, as they always do, I believe they can serve as a springboard to get more investors to look hard at citrus. We need more trees.

Florida Citrus Mutual once again hosted the Florida Citrus Industry Annual Conference in June. This year’s event drew 650 people to the Coconut Point Hyatt in Bonita Springs.

The conference has become what Florida Citrus Mutual envisioned initially — a family-oriented gathering that brings our industry together. Many of us in Florida citrus have known each other for a long time and it is good to have a forum to decompress and reflect at the end of the season.

Financially, the organization had another successful year through a 4 percent reduction in expenditures and the addition of 35 new membership contracts representing 4,964 acres, or 1,737,400 additional boxes. In addition, allied memberships increased 18 percent.

During the season’s early cold spell, Mutual took an active role during the freeze by giving growers information through its Freeze Information Network, which provides up-to-date and accurate weather forecasts by telephone. Mutual also fielded many media calls from all over the world asking for information on how the Florida citrus industry fared.

In February, Mutual conducted a very successful Washington D.C. Fly-In to talk citrus with our federal representatives and regulators. Growers got to meet with key members of Florida’s Congressional delegation — Gus Bilrakis, Vern Buchanan and Tom Rooney among others — and discuss the issues our industry faces, including pest and disease, labor and marketing, as well as funding for CHRP and MAP.

But Mutual’s activity in Washington included much more than the Fly-In. Bringing policy makers to Florida to see citrus firsthand is a useful tool in the organization’s lobbying toolkit. New Congressman Steve Southerland, Rich Nugent and Dennis Ross, as well as Tom Rooney, chairman of a House Agriculture Subcommittee, spent time touring groves or visited Mutual’s headquarters.  Ross, a strong advocate of citrus, met with growers to analyze immigration reform issues, particularly the H-2A program.

The organization’s big federal project for the year was advancing a proposal to capture a portion of the tariff on imported citrus products to help fund invasive pest and disease research. This very exciting plan could provide the industry with a dedicated long-term source of research funding.

The measure will be a tough lift; in the meantime U.S. Senator Bill Nelson announced the USDA will dedicate $11 million in the next four years to citrus research as a placeholder until the trust fund can be put in place. In Tallahassee, the 2011 session was interesting to say the least. Early in the season, Mutual met personally with Senate President Mike Haridopolos, House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate Budget Committee Chairman J.D. Alexander to discuss citrus issues.

Mutual, along with other major agriculture organizations, focused nearly exclusively on defeating a bill that would require employers to use the federal E-Verify system. The message was clear: Florida citrus is a $9 billion industry with 76,000 jobs, and all that is at risk if a commonsense immigration policy is not adopted. A stable labor force is essential to keeping critical food production in the United States and not offshore.

Senator J.D. Alexander ultimately killed the E-Verify measure. Senator Alexander and Reps. Denise Grimsley and Ben Albritton were instrumental in securing $2 million for citrus research in the state budget. Unfortunately, Governor Rick Scott vetoed the appropriation.

Despite objections by the industry and Mutual, Scott did not veto SB 2122, which implemented sweeping changes to the Florida Department of Citrus and the Florida Citrus Commission.

Trade issues were once again a large part of Mutual’s agenda during the 2010-2011 season. Protecting Florida citrus from unfair trade practices is core to the organization’s mission. In 2006, Florida Citrus Mutual and its supporters succeeded in petitioning the U.S. Department of Commerce to impose an antidumping order on imports of orange juice concentrate and NFC from Brazil.

Before the order, bulk prices for juice were as low as 75 cents per pounds solid, well below break-even, and inventories were building despite the previous years’ back-to-back hurricanes. Since the order brought price discipline to the market, prices have stabilized at levels above grower costs, and currently stand in the range of $1.70-$1.80 pps.

In addition to the anti-dumping order, maintaining the tariff on imported OJ was also Job 1 for Mutual in 2010-2011. The regular tariff on orange juice, approximately 28 cents per gallon for concentrate and 17 cents per gallon for NFC, is an essential offset to the advantages maintained by Brazil, the world’s largest producer. 

Understanding that even a partial cut in the tariff will render citrus growing unprofitable, Mutual continued to advocate on behalf of Florida citrus to the USTR and trading partners in Geneva. Not only is this tariff essential for grower returns, but its reduction would diminish the pool of funding, which might be available under the proposed Citrus Research Trust Fund.  

The 2010-2011 season was challenging to not only Mutual, but the entire Florida citrus industry. Despite the hurdles, the entire organization, from the 21member Board of Directors to the staff many accomplishments. FCM looks forward to another successful season in 2011-2012.

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