By Tacy Callies
Callie Walker comes from a long line of Florida farmers. In 1875, her family set up homestead in Alva. Her father, uncles, grandfather and great-grandfather have been involved in a diversity of agricultural fields including citrus, cattle, sugar cane, vegetables and row crops.
“My dad and his three brothers still run the family operation — citrus and cow/calf — in Alva,” says Walker. Her father, Hugh English, is a member of both the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame and the Citrus Hall of Fame. Walker’s father-in-law also works in agriculture, and her sister specializes in ag land use law and permitting.
“A lot of people have had a lot of hands in helping me learn the business of citrus,” says Walker, who serves as chief of the Bureau of Pest Eradication and Control for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) Division of Plant Industry. “I’ve benefitted my whole life from every individual (researchers, nurserymen, growers, etc.) who has been able to share their knowledge with me.”
In her bureau chief role, Walker’s responsibilities center on citrus. While she grew up in the family’s citrus business, her resume also includes 15 years in community banking, where she worked with commercial, agricultural and personal accounts for two different banks.
It was during her banking days that she began sitting on several agricultural boards, including:
• Gulf Citrus Growers Association (GCGA)
• Hendry Glades Farm Bureau (currently she is president)
• Southwest Florida Research and Education Center’s Foundation and Citrus Advisory boards
• Florida Farm Bureau Citrus Advisory and Oversight boards
• American Farm Bureau Citrus Advisory board
Walker’s industry organization service was modeled after the positive example she saw growing up. “My family has all played a part in serving the industry that is so much a part of our lives by being active on boards,” she says.
PROFILE: CALLIE WALKER
Born: 1967 in Fort Myers
Education: Business administration degree from Florida Southern College, graduate of the Louisiana State University School of Banking and a graduate of the Wedgworth Leadership Institute Class VIII
Position: Chief of the Bureau of Pest Eradication and Control
Best part of the job: “Working in the field with the people — including growers, packers, processors, researchers, FDACS leadership and more — and the role I play in helping the industry maintain its viability.”
Most challenging part of the job: Time management
Family: Married to Jason for 26 years and has an 18-year-old son, John
Favorite vacation: A 3-week European cruise with nine family members to celebrate her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary
Looking forward to: A cruise this summer to Alaska
Standing tall: “While serving on the Gulf Citrus Growers Association board, Callie (who is 6 feet tall) would always wear heels to the group photos and appear to be the tallest person,” says Wade Timpner of Southern Gardens Citrus. “She always received a hard time during the photo shoot. Being a good sport, she just laughed and told us we should have worn heels.”
What you don’t know about her: “Callie has a mean volleyball serve, and I learned the hard way you don’t want to be across the net from her!” says David Wheeler of Wheeler Farms.
Citrus grower David Wheeler, president of Wheeler Farms, also served on the GCGA board with Walker. He believes her best traits are integrity, devotion, dependability and a positive outlook. “I am proud to have known Callie and her family for many years,” he says. “A big part of what makes this industry so special is the multi-generational families that make up the backbone of the Florida citrus industry.”
After the birth of her son, Walker left the banking business, but continued serving on citrus boards and working (scouting and soil samples) with her dad in the family business.
Approximately four years ago, she took a field staff job in the FDACS Office of Ag Water Policy, where her primary responsibility was enrolling growers in best management practices programs. “I spent a lot of time working with the Department of Environmental Protection and riding people’s property,” says Walker. Two years later, she became chief of the Bureau of Pest Eradication and Control, where she spends many hours on the road and at citrus industry events.
SURVEY AND REGULATORY FUNCTIONS
As bureau chief, Walker serves as the program manager for the Citrus Health Response Program (CHRP). Begun in 2007, CHRP is an umbrella cooperative agreement between the state of Florida and the federal U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Walker’s biggest responsibility is survey and regulatory functions. In the 2015–16 citrus season, pre-harvest surveys resulted in 3,263 fresh fruit permits to move fruit to other countries. During that same period, multi-pest surveys were conducted on 246,000 acres of citrus. “This is where we would find a new pest or disease, like leprosis or chlorosis,” explains Walker.
Another function of Walker’s bureau is partnering with USDA on Asian citrus psyllid (ACP) tap counts. Every three weeks, 5,600 blocks of citrus are tapped. Of those, 1,700 per month are handled by her bureau.
In addition, Walker’s bureau regulates the area within 1 mile of each of Florida’s 78 citrus nurseries and oversees the Citrus Quarantine and Disease Detection Maps program, which is currently active for canker, HLB/ACP and citrus black spot (CBS).
CBS surveys checked 115,000 acres of citrus last season, says Walker. “The regulatory side involves tasks such as monitoring fruit movement out of quarantine zones, for example, checking that leaf litter is properly disposed of in CBS areas.”
EFFORTS TO ELIMINATE ABANDONED GROVES
Another area that falls under CHRP is the Abandoned Grove Initiative, not to be confused with the HLB Multi-Agency Coordination Group’s Abandoned Grove Removal Project. Both programs are handled through Walker’s bureau and are designed to stop HLB-spreading psyllids that live in abandoned groves from infecting commercial groves.
The Abandoned Grove Initiative began in 2009. Under this program, landowners who pay to destroy their abandoned groves receive an ag exemption for lower property taxes. Growers must either keep the land empty or replant it with citrus to maintain the exemption for five years.
The Abandoned Grove Removal Project was launched during the 2014–15 citrus season. It is a voluntary program in which growers sign consent forms to have FDACS take out their inactive groves. There is no cost to the grower, but FDACS determines the timing of the grove removal. Participants receive the same property tax ag exemption as noted above.
The project was funded at $1 million its first year, which resulted in the removal of 2,975 acres of abandoned trees. Because research showed that psyllid counts in active groves near the removed abandoned groves decreased, the project was refunded at $1.1 million for the 2015–16 season. An additional 3,741 abandoned citrus acres were removed in four citrus health management areas (CHMAs) with highly concentrated commercial production.
“Monitoring blocks (near the removed abandoned groves) have had lower overall psyllid counts, and the fluctuation in counts does not seem to be as great,” says Walker.
While only 5 percent of the state’s total abandoned citrus acreage was removed through the project in its first two seasons, Walker expects to make significant headway in the third season, since the project is now funded at $4 million for the 2016–17 season. She says 15,000 abandoned acres within the best-performing CHMAs are being targeted, and that all grove removal work must be complete by June 30, 2017.
Growers interested in grove removal programs should contact their local CHRP office or the main office in Winter Haven.
Citrus grower David Wheeler, president of Wheeler Farms, says Walker “has helped our company, as well as many other growers, with the abandoned grove removal program and she has kept growers informed of opportunities that are available today.”
OTHER FOCUS AREAS
CHMAs are an important aspect of Walker’s work. “My job is to facilitate what the growers need (such as breaking up a large CHMA into smaller ones or redesigning the boundaries),” she says. “I’m there as a support and to help them with coordination. CHMAs are not static; they depend on current citrus health issues. Right now, everything revolves around greening, but down the road, it could be something else.”
Just as CHMAs are not static, Walker says CHRP is not either. “If we find a new pest or disease, we would change what we do.”
Another service CHRP offers to growers is the release of Tamarixia radiata (wasps that parasitize ACP). “It’s a free service and a biological control option for growers who may only be able to afford two psyllid sprays per year,” says Walker. “FDACS performs releases every three weeks, during ACP tap sampling, or the grower has the option to do releases on their own timing.”
10 YEARS FROM NOW
Walker shares her thoughts on what the Florida citrus industry will look like a decade from now: “Whether it’s freezes, changing where we grow, blight, tristeza, canker, hurricanes or greening, the one thing I do know is the grower today is much better than the grower of 10, 20 or 100 years ago. In 10 years, due to research or technology changes, the combination of spirit and determination will make for a better grower than today. The industry will be different, no doubt. It is different than it was. Nothing ever stands still, but there will still be an industry.”
Key to the future of the industry, says Walker, is the collaboration of the researcher and the grower. “The grower can make what the researcher comes up with work and can implement it in the field,” she says.
When asked what her greatest career accomplishment is, Walker humbly replies that she doesn’t think she has realized it yet. “Ask me in 10 years. If I can give back to the industry just a fraction of what it has given me, that’s a good accomplishment.”
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