Citrus Commission Rejects Tax Hike To Help Growers Market Their Crops
Small growers of Florida’s signature crop, expressing concerns about the future of the citrus industry, indicated a willingness Wednesday to pay a higher tax rate if it gets people to drink more orange juice.
But the Florida Citrus Commission rejected a proposal to raise from 7 cents to 12 cents a per-box tax on oranges that growers pay to help market their crop.
The commission backed larger growers by agreeing to consider later whether to use $2 million from anticipated reserve revenue to expand national marketing efforts on social media and digital streaming services to extol health benefits of oranges.
Before the vote, Andy Taylor, senior vice president of finance for Vero Beach-based Peace River Citrus, said the marketing is fully funded by domestic growers and an inequity needs to be addressed at the federal level involving fruit imported from Brazil, Mexico and other countries.
“We need to market more. But half of the benefit of what we’re doing here is being absorbed by the importers,” Taylor said. “They’re supplying half the juice into the country and they’re not contributing. The burden of promotion is 100 percent on the backs of Florida growers.”
An increase to 9 cents a box was projected to raise $2 million, while going to 12 cents a box would generate about $5 million, according to a staff presentation.
Chris Spinosa, a grower from Bartow, said people in the industry can’t wait as he backed an increase to 12 cents a box.
“If we are going to be here two years from now, we’ve got to change things now,” Spinosa said. “There is nobody that thinks that we can keep going the way we’re going and make progress. We’ve got to change something. We can’t keep doing nothing, and staying at 7 cents is changing nothing.”
Commissioner Marty McKenna warned that any delay in the marketing program could make recovery of the industry more difficult.
“If we don’t put our best foot forward in advertising, as we’re going down this path, we’re just digging a deeper hole so that when we get a solution to our present, we’ve got a deeper hole to get out of,” said McKenna, who pushed to raise the tax to 12 cents per box.
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Citrus marketing has declined over the past decade as growers have seen production numbers decrease because of issues such as citrus greening disease, development pressure and changes in drinking habits.
The goal of any marketing effort outlined Wednesday would be to drive a positive message of the benefits of orange juice --- high in vitamin C, fiber and potassium for heart health and to lower blood pressure --- against negative perceptions of sugar in the fruit.
Compounding the situation for people in the industry, this year --- two years after Hurricane Irma decimated the crop --- many growers have seen production rebound but are struggling to find buyers.
Juice processors did not expect Florida citrus production to return to the level seen just before Irma and signed three- and five-year supply deals with growers from countries including Mexico and Brazil.
Pam Fentress, owner of Lost Lake Groves in Lake Placid, told the commissioners Wednesday that growers are “scared” about the future.
“If you’re going to do something, now is the time,” Fentress said. “If we don’t start moving out inventory, a lot more of us won’t be here to fight in the very near future. Give us a fighting chance. Raise the box tax. And if you’re going to get 15 cents from me, this is the year to do it.”
In the ongoing growing season, which will end next summer, the state is projected to fill about 80 million industry-standard 90-pound boxes with citrus, of which oranges would account for about 74 million boxes.
Two decades ago, the state annually filled more than 200 million boxes of oranges.
The commission, under pressure from growers and then-Gov. Rick Scott as the industry increased its fight against citrus greening disease, lowered the tax from 23 cents per box in 2016.
The meeting Wednesday marked the first for Citrus Commission members Paul Meador, Steve Johnson and Bill Poulton, who were appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday.
Poulton is director of manufacturing for Tropicana Products. Johnson, a citrus grower from Bowling Green, is president of Johnson Harvesting, Inc. Meador, from Fort Denaud, is president of Everglades Harvesting & Hauling, Inc.
In an email on Tuesday, DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferre said the governor had no stance on the box-tax proposal and didn’t give the new appointees any direction on the issue.