Citrus Commission Looks At Funding Amid Industry Troubles

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The Florida Citrus Commission, under pressure to downsize by a group of large growers, will start building a budget for next fiscal year that projects a much-smaller crop than in the current year.

The commission advised staff on Wednesday to project revenue for operations based on the industry growing enough oranges to fill 54 million 90-pound boxes and enough grapefruit to fill 10 million similar-sized boxes.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted that this year’s Florida orange harvest will be enough to fill an estimated 71 million boxes, an increase of 2 million boxes from a February forecast but still the worst for the industry in five decades. The grapefruit yield is currently forecast at 10.7 million boxes.

In February, a group of large growers implored the commission to make deep cuts to operations as the industry is “in a struggle for our survival,” facing its worst growing season in a half-century due in large part to citrus greening disease.

The proposal by the growers — including Ben Hill Griffin III of Frostproof-based Ben Hill Griffin Inc., David Duda of Duda & Sons in Oviedo, Bill Becker of Vero Beach-based Peace River Citrus Products, and Bob Buker, CEO and president of U.S. Sugar Corp. — included a request to reduce the agency’s annual budget from about $29.9 million to just over $7 million. The request would trim staff from 43 to 10 and reduce public relations efforts from $9 million to $2 million.

The growers also proposed reducing a “box” tax that growers pay on each box of oranges from 23 cents to 7 cents and on each box of grapefruit from 19 cents to 7 cents. The tax pays for operations of the Department of Citrus, which is under the Citrus Commission.

The commission is expected to hold a budget workshop in April, with a preliminary operating budget ready by June. The proposed reduction in the box tax was not discussed Wednesday.

The commission got some good news Tuesday, when Gov. Rick Scott indicated he will not veto $7 million in the new state budget for marketing and development of new varieties.

“This additional funding allows the Department of Citrus to continue its mission of educating consumers on why Florida citrus is important — to them, to their families, and to the state of Florida,” commission Executive Director Shannon Shepp said in a prepared statement. “We work hard to tell our story, and this will help.”

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