Morgan McKenna Porter brings new energy to the Citrus Research and Development Foundation.
By Ernie Neff
New Citrus Research and Development Foundation (CRDF) board President Morgan McKenna Porter was born Feb. 29, 1992. There’s only a Feb. 29 every fourth year, a leap year. “So,” she quipped, “CRDF has a seven-year-old president if we go by my leap year age.” Porter succeeded former president Rob Atchley on Jan. 1.
Whether using her leap year age or her real age of 31, she’s the youngest president of the organization that primarily funds efforts to cope with or solve HLB, also called greening. CRDF Chief Operating Officer Rick Dantzler sees advantages to that. “She’s young, so she has a vested interest in the well-being of this industry,” he said. “She isn’t afraid to confront controversial issues and is willing to challenge the status quo. I’m really looking forward to her leadership.”
“As a young grower, I hope to have a very long career in the citrus industry,” said Porter, who became a CRDF board member in January 2021. She said being on the board, and now president, “allows me to be actively engaged in the direction the research for our industry is headed.”
WHAT’S NEEDED FOR HLB
Porter said she hopes to lead the CRDF board in identifying research that gives growers immediate help with HLB while working toward the goal of trees with genetic tolerance or resistance. “My main objective is to get CRISPR trees from the greenhouse to a field-testing stage,” she said, noting it’s imperative to start learning how those trees perform in a commercial grove. CRISPR is a method of genome editing that is used in developing citrus varieties.
“I envision a tree with tolerance or resistance to HLB that allows us to get closer to pre-HLB yields and quality, which will be one of our best opportunities to a sustainable Florida citrus industry,” she said. “Other horticultural practices or therapies will hopefully be key to carry us until those genetics are available for commercial planting, and that availability can’t come soon enough.”
“I also hope CRDF can play a key role in the research needed to help growers maximize the efficacy of the approved bactericides we have in our toolbox,” Porter added.
GROWING UP IN GROVES
Porter, daughter of Pat and Melody McKenna, spent much of her youth in citrus groves. “My dad was a grove manager for Alcoma at their Clewiston grove, and I spent my early years riding my pink tricycle from our house in the middle of the grove down to the barn,” she recalled. “When I was five years old, Alcoma brought my dad to Lake Wales, which allowed my parents to move our family, which now included my little sister Meredith, back to their hometown to raise their family.”
In 2001, Pat McKenna and his brother Marty formed McKenna Brothers, Inc., a citrus caretaking and harvesting company. The formation of that company “allowed my sister, cousins and me to grow up immersed in the citrus industry and watch the example they set as dedicated growers and businessmen,” Porter said.
Porter graduated from the University of Florida in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education and communication with a specialization in communication and leadership development.
In college, she spent two summers as a Syngenta citrus intern. That led to her working for Syngenta after she graduated. She was a developmental sales representative in Fresno, California, an AgriEdge (a data management program) specialist in Central and South Florida and a sales representative in Southwest Florida. She said her years with Syngenta allowed her “to work with colleagues that became lifelong friends and mentors, gain exposure and experience with crops outside of citrus, and develop as a professional.”
JOINING THE FAMILY CITRUS BUSINESS
Porter said she is “beyond grateful” for her Syngenta experience. But in spring 2020, she said, “I started to feel a draw to work directly in the citrus industry. In August of 2020, my uncle Marty and dad, Pat, allowed me the opportunity to come back to the family business.”
When she joined the family business, her father and uncle gave her the title of caretaking manager. She remains very involved in caretaking but has many other responsibilities as well (see “Morgan’s many hats” sidebar).
Porter said her uncle, father and many of her friends and mentors in the citrus industry “have been key folks navigating the turbulent road of growing citrus in the era of greening. It’s not easy to balance growing citrus and being an active leader, so I am grateful for their efforts and the example they set.”
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