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• 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.
“We operated sort of lean, and we had to learn on the go. We’d buy an old grove in bad shape, but in a good location, and fix it up. You learn a lot about groves pretty fast like that.
“David and I didn’t grow up like a lot of guys in the business, working in the groves every day. We lived in Winter Haven, where we had no groves. Dad’s groves at that time were all at LaBelle. But, we did work in the groves during summers, so that helped.”
The U.S. orange juice business finds itself in the odd position of enjoying relatively high prices and low inventory at a time when demand has fallen due to economic pressures. No doubt some consumers also backed away after imported Brazilian juice tainted by a fungicide made headlines.
A big Brazilian crop this year, following two other good ones, could put a cap on juice price, Mark says. It all adds up to a bit of uncertainty at an otherwise upbeat time for Florida growers.
He sees plenty of positive things coming Florida’s way, but still wants to be able to respond to threats to the industry. The threat from greening and other exotic pests that could someday be introduced concerns him a great deal.
With research budgetson the chopping block, Mark says it’s doubly important to enact federal legislation introduced by Sen. Bill Nelson to create a citrus trust fund from tariffs already paid on orange juice imported into the U.S.
All that money currently goes into the government’s general fund, but Nelson’s proposal would target a portion of it specifically to citrus disease and pest research.
“That will help us, maybe on greening today, maybe on something else ten years from now,” Mark says. “We can use those dollars to help deal with the challenge. Our competition has to pay this tariff, anyway. They’re all for it because they have greening and the same problems, so if we find an answer, it will help them tremendously. Everybody would benefit.
“I’m probably an overly optimistic kind of guy. But when I see the number of people engaged on the issue of greening, I’m optimistic we’re going to get the thing solved. I tend to wonder what the next thing will be — I have a feeling that day is coming.”
Florida Citrus Mutual, naturally enough, supports Nelson’s plan. Wheeler says the organization’s goal is to represent the industry both in Washington and Tallahassee, and to find ways to make growers more profitable.
He praises Mutual’s staff members, who make things go day-by-day. As president, he plans to stay closely involved with decision-making over the next couple of years.
“I don’t micromanagebut I like to be involved with things and know what’s going on. I’ll work with the board and be the mouthpiece, help determine strategies and what we want priorities to be. We’ve got great board members and several others we’re counting on to be in leadership positions down the road.”
Mark, 41, has been on Mutual’s board for seven years. He is also active with the Farm Credit of Southwest Florida board, which resulted in a term on the board of AgFirst, the Columbia, S.C.-based farm credit bank.
Soon after joining the family business in the mid-1990’s, he felt moved to take on leadership roles in industry organizations.
He and his brothers, David and Wes, at different times took part in the program now called the Wedgworth Leadership Institute, operated by the University of Florida. He credits it with helping prepare him to step into a leadership role.
“All three of us learned things that helped us become more effective,” Mark says. “It opened us up to things going on in the world that affect our business, whether on a community or national level.
“We met dynamic and interesting folks whose ideas and opinions might have been different from ours — but that helped us expand our viewpoint and vision of the world.
“It groomed us to be more involved with the outside world. So much of what affects us here is not taking place here, but in Tallahassee or Washington.”