The smile on Mike Sparks’ face couldn’t have been any broader as the 2012 Florida Citrus Industry Annual Conference wound down.

“Here’s a conference for an industry that’s been struggling for a while, yes — but people are upbeat,” says Sparks, Florida Citrus Mutual’s chief executive officer and executive vice president.

“Attendance numbers are up, over 700, which may be a record. A lot of kids are here, and it’s great to see young families taking part in our industry.”

“We’re still optimistic; our glass is more than half-filled. We’ve seen good grower returns this season, and a lot of that was immediately put back into groves with new plantings.

“We’re encouraged about research efforts to knock down disease and pest problems like the psyllid so we can protect our trees.”

But, he emphasizes that this is no time to put the industry on cruise control.

“We’ve got to be particularly concerned about marketing programs that are underfunded because those dollars were shifted to research.

“But, there’s a sense of optimism — citrus growers are able to come back from whatever Mother Nature throws at them: hurricanes, diseases, insects, you name it.”

Sparks and other industry leaders hope Florida’s citrus acreage of about 550,000, down from its high of 850,000, has bottomed out and will trend upward.

“We were knocked down, but we’ve already stepped up. It’s encouraging to see new trees being planted. Some people were counting us out, but it isn’t going to happen. We’re still a huge industry with a $9 billion impact on the state’s annual economy.”

Set in Bonita Springs, Fla., at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point, the swimming pools were filled with frolicking citrus industry youngsters while their mostly happy parents heard speakers talk about a business poised for a turnaround.

It didn’t hurt that the orange juice market was on the upswing.

“The average price of orange juice is at an all-time high,” said Doug Ackerman, Florida Department of Citrus executive director. “We’ve seen an 8 percent increase in spot contract prices, and we’re projecting inventories to get even smaller by September.”

The big issues for Florida’s citrus industry remain maintaining funding for research projects to combat exotic invasive diseases and assuring an adequate harvesting labor force.

Due to citrus greening disease, spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, growers spent about 6 cents per box of citrus marketed on research, Sparks says. Another 2 cents per box from the state that was originally slated for marketing shifted to research, as well.

“We have to make sure the USDA-ARS research station at Fort Pierce is adequately funded, which is going to be tough in this economic climate,” he says.

Since greening diseasehas been found in Texas and California, those states could drain some federal research dollars from Florida’s effort.

“We’ve got to make sure Florida gets its fair share of funding,” Sparks says.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam praised grower efforts to control the psyllid through area-wide programs.