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Cooperative s New Program Offering Growers Cash to Plant More Trees

By Kevin Bouffard
Published: Saturday, November 15, 2014 at 9:02 p.m.

Dave Crumbly, left, vice president of agricultural services for the Florida's Natural Growers cooperative, and Larry Black, the general manager of Peace River Packing Co., tour one of Black's 2-year-old Valencia orange groves in Lake Wales on Friday. Florida Natural's tree-planting incentive program subsidizes the costs for its grower/members to plant new orange trees.

LAKE WALES | Florida's Natural Growers is taking applications to participate in the future of the citrus industry, and there's no time to waste.

The Lake Wales-based juice processor announced in September that it would make $10 million available to Florida's growers to support the planting of 1 million new orange trees through the 2016-17 citrus season.

Florida's Natural is a cooperative with nearly 1,000 members growing mostly oranges on more than 60,000 grove acres.

"We need our growers to get back in the game and be productive," Bob Behr, chief operating officer, said Friday. "We need for them to stay in business, and we need them to support our brand."

Florida's Natural is the nation's third-largest OJ retailer and the top seller of grapefruit juice in the U.S. with total sales revenue of $453.4 million for all products in its fiscal year ending Aug. 31. All of its Florida's Natural brand juice products are made from Florida fruit provided by its members.

The company set a goal of producing an all-Florida juice when it created that brand more than 30 years ago. The fatal bacterial disease citrus greening threatens that Florida brand identity as well as the future of the state's entire citrus industry.

Florida's Natural officials created the planting incentive program -- or PIP -- to reverse the greening-related production declines among its member growers across the state, Behr said.

Greening has sent the entire Florida citrus industry into a tailspin.

For the five nonhurricane seasons before greening surfaced in Florida in 2005, the state's growers produced an average orange crop of 226 million boxes. But Florida growers harvested just 104.6 million boxes in the 2013-14 season and they are projected to produce only 108 million boxes this season, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A Florida Department of Citrus study projects Florida will produce just 85.4 million orange boxes 2023-24.

The primary cause is the loss of Florida citrus groves to greening, a decline from 748,555 acres in 2004 to 515,147 acres now, USDA figures show. As a result, the Florida's Natural plant in Lake Wales processed less than 15 million boxes in 2013-14, down from 18 million boxes the previous season.

The plant employs 650 people, and its Umatilla packaging plant employs another 100 workers.

Greening is a bacterial disease that weakens citrus trees, leading to declining production, and it eventually kills them. The disease has already infected trees in virtually every grove in Florida.

Growers can mitigate its effects on the trees, but they can't stop the disease's spread or eliminate its eventual destruction of the trees.

The new trees under PIP will produce 2 million new orange boxes annually, said Dave Crumbly, vice president of agricultural services, who oversees the program.

So far, Florida's Natural has approved $7.5 million in PIP incentives.

"We felt at the beginning our growers would respond, but the response has been greater than we expected in a short period of time," Crumbly said.

So far, only current members have been approved for PIP money, Behr said, but Florida's Natural will consider applications from nonmembers. Growers must commit to selling all oranges from the new trees to Florida's Natural and agree to adhere to certain standards on grove caretaking, including fertilization and pest control practices.

The program also encourages denser tree planting, from 270 to 350 trees per acre, Crumbly said. Before greening, the standard grove architecture ranged from 120 to 200 trees per acre.

Denser planting benefits the growers and Florida's Natural by keeping harvest yields high even when new trees succumb to greening, said Peter Hahn, senior director of planning and fruit procurement, who also oversees PIP.

The idea is that a grove with 270 trees per acre can remain economically viable -- that is, produce enough harvestable oranges, even if it loses perhaps 70 trees to greening.

Another grove with only about 140 trees per acre could not be harvested profitably with that kind of loss.

The program will reimburse growers $10 for each new tree planted, Crumbly said.

That represents a quarter or more of total replanting costs, including the price of the tree, irrigation equipment and labor.

Florida's growers can save even more on replanting costs by participating in the USDA's tree replacement program -- also announced in September -- Behr said.

The USDA program will reimburse growers 65 percent of their replanting costs and 50 percent of the costs of tree removal and site preparation, capped at $125,000 per year.

"When you think about the money available through our program and the USDA tree planting program, growers can significantly cut the costs of replanting," Behr said.

Larry Black, general manager of the Peace River Packing Co. in Fort Meade, is one grower taking advantage of PIP. Peace River, a Florida's Natural member, owns 2,200 grove acres -- almost all in Polk County.

Peace River will receive PIP money to plant another 265 acres, including 65 acres already planted, Black said.

Growers who have planted within the past 18 months are eligible for the program.

PIP has come at the right time as growers have gained more confidence in their ability to plant new groves and bring them into profitable production, he said. "Confidence is building in the industry," Black said. "There's evidence growers can be successful in the age of endemic greening."

[ Kevin Bouffard can be reached at kevin.bouffard@theledger.com or at 863-401-6980. Read more on citrus on his Facebook page, http://bit.ly/baxWuU. ]

This story appeared in print on page C10

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