Mark Wheeler examines the newflush of growth on 70 rehabilitated acres of pineapple oranges near Lake Wales and likes what he sees.

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.

“We can rehab these trees and get them back in production in a couple of years, compared to the three or four years it would take to get new trees into production,” Mark says. “These older groves are wide-set. It could be that they’ll never get the high production possible with a young tight-set grove, but we can make up for some of that by getting fruit off them more quickly. Some people think you’re better off starting from scratch because of the recovery rate of the rehabbed trees, but we’re seeing about 80 percent recovery. We’ll take that.”

Florida’s development crash has also made citrus expansion affordable.

“In the boom years, this land went for $30,000 to $35,000 an acre,” he says. “Now we’re picking it up for less than $10,000, which is about the price it went for in 2000. It’s possible to get some grove land, planted and producing, for $5,000 an acre without development rights.”

The timing could be right for citrus expansion, he thinks. With juice price at a profitable level at the same time land prices have fallen, many growers can justify adding or planting groves.

“I think we’ve seen Florida citrusacreage bottom out and begin to head back up,” Mark says. “We hit around 550,000 acres, and I can see getting up to 600,000. I don’t know if we’ll get back to the 850,000 acre level, but we’ll add acreage from where we’ve been.

“Acreage will be a pure function of demand. I don’t think juice price will remain where it has been this year, but if we still see a somewhat elevated price for two or three years, I think we can get back up to 600,000 acres.

“But if the price drops for a year or two, growers will back off. I don’t think that’s going to happen — but I also don’t think we’re going to enjoy extremely high prices for the next five years.”

Nursery production will certainly be a limiting factor for growers looking to expand, however. Nursery costs multiplied by being forced to put young trees in greenhouses in order to avoid citrus greening disease. In addition, some nurseries now devote some resources to blueberries. “Even if the industry wanted to expand in a big way, we don’t have the young tree capacity to do it,” says David Wheeler.

“It has been very expensive to convert the nurseries to greenhouse production. As a result, tree cost has gone up. What had been a $3 or $4 tree became an $8 or $10 tree. It’s tough to even get enough trees to reset within a grove, not to mention plant new ground.” Young trees must be ordered a year in advance in order for nurseries to get them ready.

Fortunate to buy young trees

“Nursery trees are tight,any way you look at it,” says Mark Wheeler. “We’ve been fortunate and have been able to buy the young trees we want. We have consistent demand and a good reputation with the nurseries, and we buy a sizable chunk of trees at a time. David is very good about cultivating and maintaining relationships. We need everybody in the nursery industry who does it right to be in our Rolodex.”

All the more reason, then, to rehabilitate those abandoned groves. The Wheeler crew chainsaws off dead wood, and both foliar and granular fertilizer snap trees out of the doldrums after their starvation period.

“They respond very well,” Mark says. “This particular grove of pineapples looked beyond hope to me, but David wanted to try to rehab them and we got a pretty high percentage of recovery. I was surprised — in a good way. What we learned is that you can sometimes be fooled by appearances.”

In some cases, it’s possible to use the old tree as a rootstock, then bud a new variety onto it. “It’s expensive, but is a way to get into production quickly,” he says.

All this is part of the new reality in citrus production, post-greening disease. Growers now have to get young trees to bearing fruit quickly because they will inevitably have a shorter productive life than prior to becoming infected with greening disease.

“The life cycle of the tree is not going to be as long,” Mark says. “Cost of production is as much as double in some cases. The grower has to ask, ‘What kind of revenue is it going to take to remain viable into the future?’ Young trees are more susceptible to greening, so the goal is to get them  into production more quickly. We need to make some income from them faster.”

The psyllid, the tiny winged insectthat spreads greening disease, is now virtually omnipresent in Florida’s groves. Total control is unlikely, which means growers need to learn how to live with a certain amount of infestation.

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.

Lean operation

“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.”