Dundee Growers Have Hope Despite HLB

Tacy CalliesHLB Management

Dundee Citrus Growers Association has constructed 110 acres of citrus under protective screen for its members. An additional 113 acres are being built, with potentially more to come.

By Ernie Neff

Like all Florida citrus packers, “our citrus volume is down substantially because of HLB,” says Dundee Citrus Growers Association (CGA) Chairman and President Lindsay Raley. But unlike many packinghouses that have closed since HLB was discovered in Florida, Dundee CGA’s packinghouse is still thriving.

Diversifying beyond citrus and helping its members cope with HLB have been keys to the association’s ability to continue to run fruit.

“Our growers were looking at alternative crops,” recalls Steven Callaham, CEO of Dundee CGA. The cooperative’s members wanted to know how their association could help with harvesting, packing and marketing of non-citrus crops. That led to the 95-year-old organization creating harvesting crews, packing lines and marketing efforts for peaches in 2012; then for blueberries in 2016. Members who wanted to grow those crops had a way to get them picked and sold.

The association now has two blueberry packing lines, one peach line and three gift fruit lines at its original packinghouse in Dundee. All citrus is packed on two lines at a Lake Hamilton facility nearby.

The cooperative has also diversified its traditional citrus business. “We’re marketing citrus year-round by bringing in contra-season citrus from other countries,” Raley says. Contra-season refers to fruit in season in other places that is not in season in Florida. Imported citrus keeps the cooperative operating longer and more efficiently, while giving its customers products to sell year-round.

“Early on in the HLB era, Dundee recognized how serious the situation was,” Raley says. “We took a lot of steps to help our growers cope and learn to manage this disease. One of the first things we did was offer a scouting service.” In the early days of HLB, many experts recommended scouting for and removing infected trees. That practice stopped after it became obvious HLB was in virtually every Florida grove.

Several years ago, Dundee CGA worked with a private company to develop a thermal therapy machine intended to kill the HLB-causing bacteria in trees. It seemed to work to some extent, but was very expensive. “It just wasn’t cost effective,” Raley says.

In 2012 and for several years after, members took advantage of a tree planting incentive program. Dundee CGA paid for the growers’ new trees in exchange for the growers’ long-term commitment to let the cooperative pack their fruit. “Our growers planted over 1,000 acres of fresh fruit varieties,” Callaham says.

According to Raley, the planting program was the model for an incentive program adopted by juice processor Florida’s Natural Growers. Dundee CGA is a member of Florida’s Natural, and Raley is vice chairman of that cooperative.       

The association made another leap in 2017 by creating a citrus under protective screen (CUPS) project on 80 Foot Road in Alturas, about 15 miles from the packing operation. The primary purpose of CUPS is to exclude HLB-spreading psyllids from trees.

The association constructed 10 11-acre CUPS structures that are owned, along with the trees in them, by individual members of the cooperative. Dundee CGA handles everything from production to marketing for the fresh citrus grown in the 110 acres of CUPS.

A second phase of CUPS totaling 113 acres is under construction next to the first phase. Phase 2 will contain nine structures ranging from 10 to 15 acres each. Some Phase 1 growers are also participating in Phase 2.

“We’re currently looking at Phase 3,” Raley says. “We have a lot of interest.”

All of the fruit grown in these CUPS is seedless, easy-to-peel tangerines or grapefruit.  

“Our goal (with CUPS) is to create a sustainable, high-quality supply of fresh Florida citrus,” Callaham says. “There’s a very optimistic outlook that CUPS brings to our growers, our employees and our customers.” He points out that research by University of Florida scientist Arnold Schumann in a small CUPS facility at Lake Alfred indicates that “upward of 1,000 boxes per acre are possible.”

“We’ve worked closely with Arnold on the development of the CUPS project,” Raley says. “He’s really paved the trail.”  

The changes the association has made have been well thought out and in response to member input. “We listen to our growers and try to provide them with the services and support they need,” says Callaham.

“We have a very strong, progressive, innovative board that is committed to the longevity of its members and industry,” Raley adds. He says Callaham, who has “a very strong crew of senior managers,” brings many ideas to the board. When actions are agreed to, the board and management team work together to obtain the desired results, Raley says.

That recipe has worked very well so far.

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About the Author

Ernie Neff

Senior Correspondent at Large