Ned Hancock: Growing Citrus Since Age 14

HancockBy Ernie Neff

Ned Hancock wasn’t the typical first-time citrus grove owner when he bought a 5-acre Highlands County plot in 1972.

He was 14 years old.

His grandfather sold him the property, and Hancock’s father had him open a checking account and manage the grove’s finances. “I’m convinced that he (grandfather) did it trying to get me to get up and go to work every day,” Hancock says.

That grove hooked Hancock on the citrus business.

The youngster paid a caretaker for major grove care and did much work himself, like hoeing weeds. He also did more typical teenager things, like play high school football and baseball (“not overly well,” he says) and hunt quail.

Hancock hung onto the grove while earning a University of Florida degree and through the early part of a 10-year loan officer career with Farm Credit and Barnett Bank. During his banking days, he accumulated more groves.

Hancock finally sold his first grove in December 1983. He used the proceeds to buy a 40-acre grove, 10 days before one of the most disastrous freezes in Florida citrus history. “My timing was perfect,” he says, keeping a straight face.

Six years later, in December 1989, Hancock quit banking to become a full-time grower and citrus caretaker. Days after making that move, another major Florida citrus freeze hit. “Again, my timing was perfect,” he says. At that time, he owned about 120 citrus acres on his own and another 100 with his parents. “Fortunately, my wife had a good job,” he says.

Hancock has increased his citrus holdings, on his own and through partnerships, to about 800 acres in Highlands and Hardee counties. The crops are mostly oranges, with some tangerines. His company caretakes another 2,000 acres. Hancock Citrus has 14 employees working in groves and four in a small nursery near Avon Park that produces trees primarily for Hancock groves.

MAINTAINING PLANT HEALTH
Prior to HLB becoming the great Florida citrus industry scourge in 2005, Hancock’s Valencia and Hamlin orange groves yielded about 500 boxes and 650 boxes per acre, respectively. By contrast, Hancock was averaging only about 250 boxes per acre before Hurricane Irma ravaged the Florida citrus industry at the start of the 2017–18 season.

Like the rest of the industry, Hancock’s production has plummeted primarily because of HLB. He adds that “Irma has really been a tough thing to overcome” because many growers expected 2017–18 to be their best production season in years until the hurricane hit.

Hancock has adopted several relatively new production practices in an effort to maintain tree health in the face of HLB:

  • He is “spoon feeding” nutrients with fertigation two to three times a month, depending on the time of year. He is also trying some slow-release fertilizer.
  • “You can’t eliminate (HLB-spreading) psyllids, but you need to manage the populations as best as you can,” Hancock says.
  • He is trying to improve soil health by “putting carbon back into the soil” through the use of compost and other products.
  • He recently began using automated irrigation in groves. “We’re seeing significant savings with diesel and water,” he says.

HancockPLANTING PROPONENT
Hancock is a strong proponent of tree planting, especially resetting, to cope with HLB. “When you go two to three years without resetting, you’ve passed the point of no return,” he declares. He says growers who don’t reset lost trees soon won’t have enough trees to achieve profitable production levels. “That grove’s going away,” he adds.

For several years since the discovery of HLB, the industry has been losing more trees than it’s replacing, Hancock notes. “Somehow, we’ve got to reverse that trend.”

More trees will be planted if growers putting in new groves plant at higher densities, and Hancock believes higher density plantings hold promise. “Your yield per tree is what’s being impacted most (by HLB), regardless of your tree density,” Hancock says. “There’s not a lot of four- or five-box-per-tree groves anymore. So I think higher-density groves are going to be more economically viable.” He thinks 250 trees per acre may be the optimal density.

AN INTENSIVE PROPOSITION
Citrus growing became “a more intensive proposition” with HLB, Hancock says. Production and tree health differ depending on the soil and the site of a grove, he says. He adds that practices that work in one grove may not work in another right beside it.

“The more time you can spend in the grove, the better,” he says. He usually spends hours daily scouting for pests, evaluating tree health and determining if sprays, fertilizer and other inputs had the impact that he expected.

Additionally, he says, growers “must be adaptive” and willing to make production changes as needed.

INFORMATION SHARING IMPOVES INDUSTRY
Hancock has benefited from other growers sharing their citrus experiences with him. “I’ve never seen a group of people that want everybody to be successful like citrus growers,” he says. He specifically recalls fellow Highlands County growers Ed Smoak and the late C. Elton Crews going out of their way to teach him about the industry and subtly offer advice. If other growers have ideas for growing citrus more successfully, “they want to share it with you,” he says.

Industry friends Jed Weeks and Keith Davis, both Wauchula citrus growers and agricultural products salesmen, say Hancock has completed the sharing circle.

“He’s motivated to keep the industry going,” says Weeks. He says Hancock has the attitude that “the industry has to be successful for him to be successful.”

After completing 16 years as a Highlands County School Board member in 2012, Hancock accepted several leadership roles in the citrus industry. He now serves on the Florida Citrus Commission and the Citrus Research and Development Foundation’s governing board, and is a recent past-president of Highlands County Citrus Growers Association. “He puts a lot of sweat and time into the industry and into his business,” Weeks says.

Davis says Hancock takes much time away from his own business to help the industry. “He’s very aggressive,” Davis says. “He’s seeking answers to help citrus growers.” Davis adds that Hancock tries new production techniques, uses government programs that encourage growers to rehabilitate groves, and encourages others to do the same.

Weeks and Davis both say Hancock has many connections with growers and others throughout the state, and gathers information from everyone in an effort to improve the industry.

They also say Hancock is a man of strong faith. “Ned’s got a tremendous faith in the Lord” and that helps him accomplish all he does in his business and for the industry, Weeks says.

“He puts God first, family second and industry third,” Davis adds.

INDUSTRY OPTIMISM
Hancock is optimistic about the Florida citrus industry’s future. “I think growers are having enough successes to see a path forward in the era of HLB,” he says, adding, “It won’t be easy.”

There are several reasons for his optimism, including the fact that groves and production appeared to be recovering in 2017 before Hurricane Irma hit. “So we’re really hopeful, whether it’s this crop (2018–19) or the next, that both the quality and the yield will be improved,” he says.

Hancock adds that many young groves being planted in recent years “are doing well” with good rootstock and scion combinations. But he admits that he wonders, “Is the juice going to be better?” Juice quality has declined with the spread of HLB.

Hancock believes the industry will benefit from better ­— possibly HLB-resistant — trees in the future, along with better HLB-fighting products. He says more efficient ways to use bactericides against HLB might soon be developed. Additionally, many people are optimistic about what their research is beginning to show.

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About the Author
Ernie Neff

Ernie Neff

Senior Correspondent at Large