BONITA SPRINGS, Fla. — Tense discussions over cutting marketing to fund citrus disease research dominated parts of the opening day of the Florida Citrus Industry Annual Conference.

On June 9, members of the Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual and the Florida Citrus Commission, who oversee the Bartow-based Florida Department of Citrus, debated increasing research to protect the industry from citrus greening disease.

The commission approved increasing research funding by $2.8 million to close a funding gap caused by Gov. Charlie Crist, I-Fla., who recently vetoed a bill that would have provided the Lake Alfred-based Citrus Research and Development Foundation Inc., the industry organization that manages citrus disease research, $1 million in matching funds for studies.

Dan Gunter, the foundation’s chief operating officer, urged continuation of the effort.

Florida citrus leaders debate boosting disease research investments

Doug Ohlemeier

Victor Story Jr. (left), president of Story Grove Service Inc., Babson Park, Fla., and president of the Florida Citrus Commission, Bartow, talks with Cody Estes Sr., president of Vero Beach-based Quality Fruit Packers of Indian River Inc. and grower Estes Citrus Inc., June 9 at the Florida Citrus Industry Annual Conference.

“We don’t want to disrupt this research if we absolutely don’t have to,” he said. “This is the only body that has the authority to plug the gap. If we don’t plug the gap, we will have to start the scientific review process all over.”

Florida’s citrus industry has invested millions of dollars in research to find solutions to stop the spread of psyllids, insects that spread huanglongbing, also known as HLB and citrus greening.

“We ought to fund this shortfall,” said commissioner Michael Taylor, vice president and general manager for Collier Enterprises’ Agribusiness Division, Naples. “It is too important to this industry. We have to have some relief and find some solutions quickly. If I can quote the president, ‘Let’s plug this hole’.”

Commissioners also approved a preliminary $53.7 million 2010-11 budget, down from last year’s $56.9 million.

The budget, which is scheduled to be finalized in October after the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases its first crop estimate for the 2010-11 season, includes a large cut in the agency’s publicity and public relations for fresh oranges and specialty fruit, with funding dropping from $481,000 in 2009-10 to $39,000 for the new season.

Though funding for domestic grapefruit promotion is set to decline from $2.8 million to $2.1 million, international grapefruit and grapefruit juice marketing is tabbed to increase from $2.6 million to $3.1 million.

Programs for marketing juice account for 42% of the agency’s budget, while fresh use represents 20%.

During citrus mutual’s 62nd annual meeting, Derek Whitis, president of Whitis Consulting LLC, Tallahassee, updated growers on legislative issues at the Capitol.

Whitis said the industry should beware that the Arizona immigration measure could be pushed in Florida.

“It’s something that polls (well) nationwide and the same in Florida,” he said. “We have to think about what if it happens. If it’s impending, we need to make sure we’re held as harmless as possible.”

Citrus mutual’s grower members elected a new president, a new western area vice president, and re-elected 21 board members.

Victor Story Jr., president of Story Grove Service, Inc., Babson Park, was elected president.

He succeeds Fran Becker, vice president of fruit procurement for Peace River Citrus Products Inc., Bradenton. Citrus mutual honored Becker for his service to the group.

Larry Black, production manager of Peace River Packing Co., Fort Meade, was elected western area vice president, succeeding Story who had previously held the position.