What is in this article?:
• Someone driving by and judging with only a quick glance might think these trees are barely clinging to life. In reality, they’re an example of the resilience of both Wheeler’s family and the Florida citrus industry.
• Mark, who is Florida Citrus Mutual’s new president, and his brother David anticipate an uptick in the business and learned to rehabilitate groves abandoned by developers wiped out in the economic recession.
• Much of this land was slated for development. Now, at least for the short term, it will continue to produce oranges.
FLORIDA CITRUS MUTUAL’S new president, Mark Wheeler, in one of his family’s groves near Lake Wales. The near-term future for citrus looks positive, he says, likely leading to some new plantings and grove rehabilitation.
Can't eradicate them
“I don’t think we’re ever going to spray the psyllid out of existence,” Mark says. “We can’t eradicate all of them — we’re only going to control this pest through new research coming up with something we don’t now have.”
Since the psyllid flits around anywhere it desires, area-wide control efforts like the current voluntary program help, he says. This may also eventually lead to concentrated production areas.
“I look at what we’ve done down south, in LaBelle, where there are bigger blocks and large corporate plantings. Farms that control large areas have a better chance of controlling the psyllid.
“Farther north, we still have the 10, 20, 30, 40-acre guys, and it’s harder to coordinate all those smaller groves. This may take out some of the smaller groves. I hope not; I’d hate to see it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if something like that happens.”
The Wheelers long ago left the small grower stage. They now have about 2,300 acres of citrus spread across seven Florida counties. They grow no citrus near their Lake Placid headquarters, but it does give them a location somewhat central to their holdings, as well as providingsome geographic and climatic diversity.
“We curse that long drive to the groves about 362 days a year,” David Wheeler says, “but on a freeze night or during a hurricane, it pays. Being spread out has paid huge dividends.”
They station crews at Lake Wales, LaBelle and Sebastian, so employees can quickly go to trouble spots.
The wide-ranging groves result not from some grand plan, but from the business savvy of Irving Wheeler, Mark and David’s father and a Winter Haven attorney who backed into the citrus business with an eye on development. He bought property intending to turn it into housing developments. He particularly liked grove land located near towns or on lakes or rivers.
In the 1970s, 40 acres near LaBelle failed to get zoning approval for development, so he kept it in producing trees. Irving Wheeler had grown up on a 40-acre truck farm and knew next to nothing about citrus production. But his father-in-law, Bob Paul, did, and they began to partner on Irving’s citrus ventures.
Paul, a pioneer in moving citrus production south to the LaBelle area (he was elected to the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame in 1993, a year after his death), proved to be a good mentor for the attorney.
“The next year after buying that property in LaBelle, there were freezes and the price went up,” Mark says. “Dad got excited about citrus and stayed that way. After his father-in-law passed away in 1992, he started managing his own groves.”
By then, David Wheeler had come back home after getting a degree in ag economics at the University of Florida. A couple of years later, after earning a finance degree at what was then Troy State University in Alabama, Mark joined the team and began learning the citrus business.
“We always had our eye on two things:good producing groves and well-located groves with development potential,” Mark says.
“Dad’s method of operation was different from the traditional citrus growers. While they usually treated it just as a production grove, he looked for real estate that had other value. He favored certain attributes — he liked for it to be on water, or three miles outside of town, that sort of thing.