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Without A Powerful Political Supporter, Citrus Struggles On

May 19, 2019

When Adam Putnam announced his candidacy for Governor of the state of Florida last year, he stood on the steps of the stately old Polk County courthouse in Bartow in front of a cheering crowd , with the American flag waving, the state song playing -- and crates of oranges lining the stage.


In his speech that day, Putnam talked about growing up in his family's citrus business, where he would help steward the orange groves through the freezes. 

"I learned at an early age," he said, "about riding groves late at night, checking pumps and checking temperatures. Assessing damage the next morning and moving forward. And every summer we would replant. And the summer after that, after another freeze, we would plant again. But we would persevere."

Putnam, who presumably would have championed the citrus industry as Governor, was the clear favorite for the Republican nomination.

"He had all the money," said Steve Bousquet, a columnist for the Sentinel newspapers, who has been reporting on Florida politics for decades.  "He had all the establishment support, he had the name ID, he had won two statewide elections, he was a very gregarious campaigner. And, in the end, none of that mattered." 

President Donald Trump endorsed Congressman Ron DeSantis, who beat Putnam in the Republican primary and went on to become Governor. 

Citrus has long been at the center of the state's identity. But citrus production is down nearly 60 percent from a decade ago, largely because of the disease called citrus greening. Those in the industry say that citrus is at a crossroads, and wonder how it will be affected by the new political reality in Tallahassee, which includes a Governor who never mentioned citrus in his state of the state address, and a Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services without a background in agriculture. 

DeSantis does not seem opposed to the citrus industry; he included $5 million in the budget for the Department of Citrus. The final budget approved by the legislature, however, slashed that amount to less than $1 million.

Adam Putnam in 2017 announcing his candidacy for Governor
Credit Robin Sussingham / WUSF

"Citrus generally has done best when there's a powerful person holding a bully pulpit from Polk or Orange County, or that part of the state," Bousquet said. " We don't have that at the moment. That would have happened had Adam Putnam won the governership, but that didn't happen."

Bousquet says that citrus doesn't have a champion now in any powerful political position, and that is  a huge change for what was once considered an iconic,  foundational industry to the state's economy.

Think of past Governors of Florida, like the late Lawton Chiles. In 1987, then-Senator Chiles appeared on a TV program, speaking to grove owners about the historic importance of citrus.

"My great-grandparents came to Auburndale and planted the first grove in that area," Chiles said, "and settled there, and named the lakes in that area. So I know something about the heritage that comes from those people."

The heritage that Lawton Chiles was talking about is disappearing, says Rick Dantzler, a former state legislator, and now the chief operating officer of the  Citrus Research and Development Foundation, the leading agency overseeing scientific research against citrus greening.

Dantzler says citrus is what has given Florida its identity for the last 100 years. But there are 375,000 newcomers arriving in the state every year -- with many of them moving into brand new houses where orange groves used to stand.

Those new Floridians might care about agriculture, Dantzler says,  but it's not in their DNA.  

"They've never been lost in a swamp, never lost their hunting dogs and had to find them, never had their hands in the belly of a deer," he said. "There's a love and appreciation for the state you just can't have, unless it's in your blood."

Dantzler says that change in culture is important because of its ability to change the entire physical landscape of the state. Florida's citrus groves are down to half the acreage that they covered in 1996. "What's so threatening," he says, "is that when a citrus grove ceases to become a citrus grove, it probably becomes rooftops. "

Polk County's Putnam, who failed to become Governor but did serve two terms as Florida's Commissioner of Agriculture,  is a fifth-generation farmer and third-generation citrus grower. By comparison, new Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried was a medical marijuana lobbyist from Miami and Bousquet said she's emphasizing the Consumer Services side of her job. Fried didn't respond to requests for an interview, but has said that besides marijuana, she'll focus on water quality issues and concealed weapons permitting.