Packinghouses are an important arm of the Florida citrus industry, providing the last check on product prior to its arrival in retail stores across the nation. These facilities face the same challenges that are currently confronting growers and other companies throughout the citrus industry.
Following one of the most devastating hurricane seasons, the spread of citrus canker has lead to a state-wide quarantine on shipments of fresh citrus to other citrus-producing states for next season. Packinghouses anxiously wait with the rest of the industry for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to release the rules governing the quarantine, which are expected sometime in August.
On top of the quarantine and the canker eradication program’s devastating effects on supply, packinghouses must also deal with declining labor as workers move to construction jobs created by hurricane rebuilding efforts and the housing and commercial development boom.
Add to that list the need to find an appropriate avenue for marketing using funds from the box tax, and citrus packinghouses are left holding overflowing plates, as is everyone in the industry.
Florida peninsula becomes mysterious island
The June 6 quarantine left many in the industry scratching their heads as to what’s next.
“The biggest issues are the unknowns,” said Don Barwick, general manager for Heller Bros. Packing Corp., Winter Garden, Fla.
Barwick said he’s waiting to hear the details of the post-quarantine protocol for fresh fruit marketing.
“What can we ship and what markets to?” he said. “With the canker management strategy, some of our trading partners are hesitant of buying until the protocol comes out—international markets, especially.”
Dennis Broadaway, executive vice president for Haines City Citrus Growers Association, worries about wasted spending on current crops that might not be shippable as a result of the quarantine.
“A lot of money is being spent on caretaking, not knowing if the crop can be shipped,” Broadaway said. “We have a huge learning curve to what extent we can continue to ship from cankered groves.”
Greg Nelson, president of DNE World Fruit Sales, Fort Pierce, Fla., said he sees the quarantine rules leading to more paperwork as grove numbers are used to track fruit from the grove through the packinghouse.
Mark Ritenour, associate professor of postharvest physiology at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Indian River Research and Education Center, Fort Pierce, said the USDA quarantine rules will involve more decontamination and fruit treatment standards. New fruit grading regulations could require visual grading after machines have graded the fruit, Ritenour said.
“There are now placards explaining to workers what to look for with canker,” he said.
Many packinghouses and growers already are working in anticipation of the USDA regulations.
“We have to be extremely vigilant that fruit coming in has been inspected at groves with no canker,” Nelson said. “We have trucks going in and out going through a canker decontamination station. Harvesting workers spray down clothing with bactericide before and between each grove.”
Citrus packing companies that ship large orders to citrus-producing states must scramble to reroute product to other destinations. Broadaway said honey tangerines are one of the biggest exports from Florida to California, and buyers there aren’t happy about the quarantine.
Barwick of Heller Bros. said if these markets are cut off, all packinghouses will have to compete in fewer arenas.
“Unless the industry expands the customer base, there’ll be more competition,” he said.
Revised marketing is necessary
Florida has been a leader in the domestic citrus industry for decades. But following last year’s hurricanes and the quarantine public relations nightmare, there is an urgent need to remind the country and the world that Florida citrus still is safe and available.
“The issue is going to be rebuilding markets,” Nelson said. “We need to remind retailers and consumers that Florida citrus is still available with promotion. We now have the volume and should schedule timely national promotions.”
Nelson said packers should go on ad with retailers, advertising in weekly circulars with promotional prices.
“We do tie-ins with Ocean Spray on bottled juices,” Nelson said. “Buy two bottles and get a free bag of grapefruit.”
Richard Kinney, executive vice president of Florida Citrus Packers Inc., Lakeland, has suggested creating and funding a new variety development and management corporation for fresh citrus to “source, develop, evaluate, protect and maximize the value of new citrus varieties, including market evaluation and cultivar management.”
Kinney has suggested reducing the Florida Department of Citrus’ proposed 20-cent fresh citrus box tax to 10 cents. Fresh citrus packers and growers would then voluntarily tax themselves 10 cents per box to generate funds for an independent fresh citrus marketing program.
“With $1 million (generated from the voluntary internal tax), we can explore value-added uses and new varieties, like seedless and easy-peel,” Kinney said.
Broadaway supported Kinney’s proposal in June at the Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual’s second Florida Citrus Industry Annual Conference in Bonita Springs, saying he’s worried about spending too much on marketing through the FDOC.
“We’re not in the same market after the hurricanes and the last two diseases,” Broadaway said. “With all the supply reduction, without significant resets for the next several years, it doesn’t seem like the FDOC tax is the best option.”
The Florida Citrus Mutual board of directors voted at the conference to support the Florida Citrus Packers’ proposal to reduce the FDOC tax to 10 cents.
Eradication eradicates resets
Kinney’s suggested marketing program commands increasing support from packers who are looking for solutions to severe long-term reductions in supply.
“Eradication has had the biggest impact on supply, removing infected trees and the healthy trees around them,” Nelson said. “Just about every major grower with groves spread around the state experienced canker.”
As packers are left with a shortage in supply, Kinney’s suggested marketing program requires attention.
Supply is drastically down because of eradication in the nurseries, Broadaway said.
“There are no resets because there’s no nursery industry,” he said. “Sixty-five percent of trees in nurseries were removed as a result of canker eradication. In four to five years, 20 percent of each grove will be missing trees. I imagine it will take a lot of ingenuity to minimize expenditures.”
Labor still a major issue
The scare of the quarantine has pushed labor issues out of the spotlight for a moment, but waiting on immigration reform changes from Congress and increased pressures driving workers away should be a prominent concern for packinghouses.
“We were fortunate that we have many long-term employees,” Nelson said. “Finding new labor has been hard. Growth in the construction industry, as a result of the hurricanes and a housing boom, has taken away workers.”
Broadaway agreed, saying that “all the uncertainties on immigration reform have caused a lot of our labor to go elsewhere—especially harvesting labor.”
Broadaway said he’s noticed the last couple years that the construction industry has been drawing away employees who would have worked in the fields. Construction companies have offered entire harvesting crews signing bonuses to work for them.
“We’ve had a couple crews contacted,” Broadaway said. “In all cases though, we don’t know where they go. Hopefully a slow down in construction will dissipate demand a little bit.”
Education key to surviving new landscape
Back in March, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Riverdale, Md., posted a draft Citrus Health Response Plan to allow stakeholders to comment on what might be necessary to sustain the citrus industry.
The plan’s regulations, combined with the USDA quarantine regulations and state regulations, are meant to cover any questions packers or anyone in the industry has about best practices required to keep citrus healthy. Disseminating the overwhelming amount of information can lead to confusion.
That’s where Ritenour and his collegues at IFAS come in. Ritenour said IFAS conducts workshops that educate and train packers, especially about the regulations.
“Packing House Day, Aug. 17, is a workshop where canker regulations and preharvest fungicides for controlling postharvest decay will be take home messages,” Ritenour said.
Ultimately, education starts in-house at management levels and works its way out to the laborers.
“Prior to every season, we sit down with company management and supervisors to discuss what the new regulations are for the season,” said Barwick of Heller Bros. “The word filters down to the field workers.”
Training is important for identifying citrus canker and greening, especially since nearly all packers own groves and deal with these two diseases in their fields and packinghouses.
Broadaway said Haines City Citrus Growers Association scouts for canker, and workers are trained to burn trees in place if they are identified as infected. The cooperative has inspected one-third of the inventory.
“We haven’t found any canker yet, knock on wood,” he said. “By taking the position of scouting and eliminating canker as we go, we’ll be in a better position for when the USDA inspects —we’ll be ahead of the game.”
Greening is the newest disease for packers to look out for. Companies are starting to train scouts and graders not only to look for canker but also to identify greening.
“Greening is more sinister because it’s latent—in the tree longer, without any symptoms,” Ritenour said.
Staying educated about regulations and compliance will be an evolving process that everyone in the Florida citrus packing industry is going to have to keep on top of to survive in the current environment.
“The game’s changing almost daily,” Broadaway said. “I’m sure there’ll be lots more changes before next season, especially in fresh fruit.” CVM