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.

Real team effort

“It’s a real team effort, grower led,” he says. “Positive peer pressure on neighbors is extraordinary.”

Exotic diseases like citrus greening will likely be more common in the future, Putnam emphasized, calling for greater efforts to stop them from reaching the U.S.

“With something like the ongoing widening of the Panama Canal, the pressure for pests and diseases is going to be even more intense than it is today. That’s a frightening thing to consider,” he said, calling for tougher federal programs both at U.S. ports and overseas.

“We want to facilitate commerce, but not sacrifice agriculture in the process. We should be taking a national leadership role in getting ahead of the curve with things like a pre-check in originating countries. We’ve got to get ahead on this.”

Florida’s “Don’t Be A Pest” program at airports in Miami and Jamaica, designed to discourage travelers from bringing ag products into the U.S., has been successful and will be expanded to airports and seaports across the U.S., Putnam says.

Many consumers don’t understand the dire threat invasive species pose to Florida agriculture.

“When something like pythons in the Everglades gets in the news, it provides an opportunity for us to paint a broader picture, raise our own profile, and speak to communities that don’t understand what we do, and therefore don’t put much value on agriculture,” Putnam says.

Agricultural labor remains a critical issue for growers on several levels. The domestic workforce is both aging and shrinking in number, says David Stefany, agricultural labor lawyer with Allen, Norton & Blue at Tampa.

Complicating that scenario are efforts at both state and federal levels to implement an E-Verify law requiring employers to certify that workers have legal status. E-Verify, in fact, remains a real possibility, even though it hasn’t been in the news much recently.

“There still is a chance for a mandatory E-Verify program at the federal level — even the Chamber of Commerce supports that,” Stefany says.

Revamping the H-2Atemporary agricultural labor program and moving it to the USDA from the U.S. Department of Labor is far from a sure bet, but it’s a switch most agriculture groups support.

“The current guest worker program is inefficient and too costly. It has oversight by an agency hostile to program users,” Stefany says.

H-2A workers currently harvest about 30 percent of Florida’s citrus, Sparks says.

Stefany likes the potential of the American Specialty Agriculture Act, which would create a new way to deal with temporary guest workers. Administered by the USDA, he says it would, among other things, reduce bureaucratic red tape, allow housing vouchers, make visas available to dairy farmers, eliminate the 50 percent rule on hiring U.S. workers, and allow binding arbitration on contracts.

The Act is imperfect, but could help exasperated ag employers. “It is somewhat compromised legislation,” Stefany says. “We desperately need a legal revision of H-2A to get it out of the Department of Labor’s roller coaster legal interpretation.

Have Plan B for labor

“I recommend that all growers have a Plan B for labor. What is your Plan B for bringing in an adequate labor supply for harvesting your citrus crop?”

For some, a Plan B might involve mechanical harvesting, now being used on an estimated 6 percent to 8 percent of the state’s acreage.

A chemical abscission agentto make removing fruit easier for both machines and hand labor, after testing for many years, is under review by the EPA, with a decision promised by February 2013, says Taw Richardson, CEO and president of AgroSource, Inc., the company licensed to market the as yet unnamed material.

“It has been used successfully around the state in tests,” he says. “It’s pretty predictable, if you follow the protocol on how to use it.”

He thinks it could result in rethinking tree architecture and grove design, as well as current harvesting equipment.

“We’re going to have to look at our planning and think about these processes going forward with this,” Richardson says.

Grapefruit producers learned that the Florida Department of Citrus will expand its branding program in Japan. Already marketed under a Florida brand, the department’s Japanese partners called for a sub-brand on the order of “Blessed by the sun.”

That’s a possible approach over the next year, says Ackerman. The department also will tout grapefruit’s health benefit to Japanese women buyers.

Asia represents a feel-good story for grapefruit. The U.S. has no real competitor in Japan, Ackerman says, while Korean demand increased 20 percent over the past year. Another major customer, Canada, remains stable. That’s all positive, considering the European economic upheaval, he says.

Vic Story, closing out his term as Florida Citrus Mutual’s president, summed up his thoughts about this year’s gathering: “Fantastic. Absolutely wonderful.”