Mike Sparks: Critical funding issues at top of priorities list

Like most leadersof ag organizations, just about every minute of Mike Sparks’ time stays booked these days. This is one of those years of confluence, when a lot of things call for the attention of Florida Citrus Mutual’s chief executive officer and executive vice president.

In Washington, D.C., where he puts a good deal of focus, legislators have squared off in a Farm Bill wrangle even more politicized than usual that could drag on over a lengthy period. At home in Florida, the organization’s growers face a tough fight against exotic diseases like citrus greening. Keeping research funded is one of Spark’s priorities. He also juggles several aspects of the national immigration debate affecting growers.

Add all that to his normal duties like regular discussion with state political and regulatory officials, committee meetings of various types, and conferences with his board members, and it’s easy to see why he might feel stressed. Perhaps it’s why on this particular day he is plagued by a common cold.

Things may be hopping at Mutual’s downtown Lakeland, Fla., headquarters but Sparks manages to remain calm, even-tempered, soft-spoken. In his world, being busy is no excuse for being rude, even when he feels less than optimal.

In Washington, D.C., where some political folks, at least, do not share Sparks’ penchant for politeness, the Farm Bill squabble fills the calendars of congressional ag leaders. Sparks thinks the debate could go on well past the deadline, pushing legislation into next year. Either way, he doubts it affects the Florida citrus industry much, since the law historically aims primarily at Midwestern farmers.

“I will say that I think ag organizations need to get together and say, ‘What’s our approach? How do we lobby? How do we represent the best interests of agriculture?’

“The thing about the Farmbillis, we know it’s for 5 years, and we know it’ll be renewed for 5 more after that. The problem is the annual budgets that are necessary to fund it. Congress can’t even get them passed.”

Critical funding, key to everything, is where Sparks focuses attention. He calls for more logical funding for major broad-based issues. 

“I’d like to see a fund established for studying exotic diseases. These things hit us here in Florida year after year. They’re causing problems in other states, as well. We need to study exotic diseases in a coordinated way and know what they are before they get here in our groves,” he says.

“We don’t need to be hit by something and have no idea what it is or how to combat it. We should study these things ahead of time and be prepared for them.

“There are some really bad ones that haven’t gotten here yet. There’s one called sudden death that I heard is worse than HLB. I don’t think we really want to deal with something that’s worse than greening. So, what I’d like is help to create a trust fund for invasive pests and diseases,” he says.

“We also need to adequately fund research to fight the exotic diseases already here, like greening,” Sparks says.

“Greening has tripledcitrus production costs over the past 5 years,” he says. “That hurts, even though grower economic returns have been very good in this period. What concerns me is if we continue to have historically high production costs and margins become very thin,” he says.

“The psyllid that carries greening has now been found in Texas and California, so it is not just a Florida problem any more.

“When this kind of disease shows up in your groves, it’s devastating. We need to continue to fund this research. Yes, we know that the research we’re paying for will be used around the world by competitors. But it is what it is. We can’t stop researching it.”

That philosophy carries over to funding work on mechanical citrus harvesting, Sparks says. With immigration issues in the daily news, “it is past time to think about machine harvesting.

“We’re in a transition period for Florida citrus. We rely heavily on non-documented labor, like all of Florida agriculture. In citrus, we might be a step above the rest, because many growers and harvesting companies have tried hard to utilize the H2A guest worker program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor.

“As much as 30 percent of our work force is H2A workers. But we are all in agreement that many improvements need to made in the H2A program. We wish a new improved program could come under the purview of USDA, which has a better understanding of agriculture than Labor.

“As for the E-Verify program, all we have to do is look at Georgia and Alabama, which passed it, to know how devastating it can be. Those Georgia Vidalia onion growers couldn’t even harvest the crop.”

Continuing to develop mechanical harvesters is important, he says, as is getting a label for the abscission agent, which loosens mature fruit on the tree.

“I see a place for mechanical harvesting of our citrus, particularly in south Florida where there are vast rows of trees and these big, expensive machines can work more efficiently than in the smaller groves near residential areas in central Florida. Mechanical harvesting is going to be good for the 85 percent of our fruit that goes to the orange juice processing plant.

“I think over the next five,10, or 20 years — whatever it turns out to be — if the mechanical harvester and the abscission agent could free up 50 percent of our labor force, what a great thing that would be. If that happened, then we might be able to take a deeper breath on the immigration reform issue.”

Sparks ticks off the facts about Florida citrus: 550,000 acres, producing 150 million 90-pound boxes of fruit worth $9 billion, employing 76,000 people. Florida Citrus Mutual represents 8,000 growers.

“We’re a voluntary membership group, but we are the largest citrus association in the state,” he says. “We have small growers and big ones. Our goal is to be responsive to the needs of Florida citrus growers.”

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