California’s $3.3 billion citrus industry is facing rising labor costs, increased foreign competition, and the threat of a devastating citrus disease. Despite all that, the leaders of California’s four leading citrus companies are optimistic about the future.
“This is a strong industry and we remain positive,” said Jim Marderosian, president of Bee Sweet Citrus in Fowler.
Marderosian was one of four citrus leaders on a panel at the 2017 Citrus Showcase held Thursday at the Visalia Convention Center. The event was organized by the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, an industry trade group. About 800 people attended the luncheon.
Citrus Mutual President Joel Nelsen posed several questions to the heads of several citrus powerhouses, including Marderosian; David Krause, president of Wonderful Citrus; Berne Evans, chief executive officer of Sun Pacific; and Russell Hanlin, president of Sunkist Growers.
Nelsen raised the issue of whether the industry can continue to make money on clementines, the darling of the citrus industry and among consumers. Some growers have questioned if the industry is reaching an oversupply of clementines and whether it’s coming at the expense of the navel orange, a longtime industry standard.
We have to make sure that we are producing a good-eating piece of fruit. If it doesn’t taste good, the consumer is not going to come back.
Jim Marderosian, president of Bee Sweet Citrus
Evans, whose company produces the Cutie brand, remains bullish about the future of clementines and navel oranges. He said there is an adequate balance between supply and demand of both products. But when prodded by Nelsen about whether he would recommend planting more clementines, he said he would not.
“We want to make sure we don’t kill the goose,” Evans said.
Marderosian said equally important in the conversation about supply and demand is the issue of quality.
“We have to make sure that we are producing a good-eating piece of fruit,” Marderosian said. “If it doesn’t taste good, the consumer is not going to come back.”
Citrus growers, especially lemon growers, were pleased with President Donald Trump’s decision to delay the start of lemon imports from Argentina, despite a 10-year effort to access the U.S. market.
Krause of Wonderful Citrus was not overly concerned about the influx of foreign lemons, saying it could work in favor of the U.S. growers.
“If done right, it could create interest year-round for lemons,” Krause said.
Other issues that weighed more heavily on the minds of the citrus leaders were higher operating costs and water.
Marderosian said regulatory costs combined with a rise in the minimum wage and new rules providing overtime to farm workers after eight hours are all having an effect on agriculture’s bottom line.
“We need the help of our legislators to keep costs down,” Marderosian said.
Ultimately, it may be the consumer who ends paying more for citrus if costs can’t be controlled through cost-cutting measures, Marderosian said.
Everyone agreed that creating a more stable water supply, whether through regulatory changes or additional storage, was critical to the future of the citrus industry and agriculture in general. They said more pressure must be put on state and federal legislators to help solve the problem.
“We are so behind in infrastructure and we need long-term changes,” Krause said. “Otherwise we will be in dire straits.”
Evans put it a bit more bluntly.
“...we need to raise hell in Washington, D.C., to get it done,” he said.