With a rich history that dates to the settlement of West Coast locations like Los Angeles, Pasadena and Hollywood, California’s iconic citrus industry can be traced back more than 100 years.
For the past 40 years one organization helped lead this industry through an ever-expanding set of issues that started in the mid-1970s over a single issue. This month marks the 41st anniversary of the organization that today successfully represents much of the state’s citrus industry on a broad array of economic, regulatory and political issues.
California Citrus Mutual (CCM) advocates on behalf of the state’s $7.2 billion citrus industry that over four decades ago began as an idea borne from the frustrations of low grower returns, according to CCM President Joel Nelsen.
“Their net revenue wasn’t what they thought it should be and they couldn’t get any answers from their packinghouses or marketing group,” Nelsen said.
“There was a feeling back then that this was as good as it gets,” he continued.
About that time California growers got wind of the success of Florida Citrus Mutual, an association known to be extremely active on behalf of its grower members. This was at a time Nelsen said California citrus growers were also considering the formation of a bargaining association to promote higher prices for their fresh-market fruit.
Formed in 1976, CCM volunteers gave themselves one year to achieve a committed response from growers representing 44,000 acres of citrus. By October, 1977 they achieved this and immediately found themselves “in a bit of a civil war” as the packinghouses resented the fact that growers were organizing.
Growers began to immediately challenge citrus packers on pricing issues and what Nelsen understands as “less-than-solid” information on what marketers and packers were doing.
“There was some controversy when it started,” he said.
As citrus growers became more organized and better informed on pricing issues – growers were already talking to each other in greater detail about the specifics of their returns – it became evident that packinghouse statements were inconsistent. From this CCM developed “The Market Memo,” which in those days was a newsletter that discussed market dynamics and pricing in specific terms.
“There wasn’t a lot of integrity in the packinghouse statements at the time,” Nelsen said. “The accounting was accurate, but there wasn’t a lot of integrity relative the statements themselves.”
Nelsen was enticed by CCM board members to take his current position in 1982 while serving in the fresh produce industry in southern California.
In his former position Nelsen worked with local media on challenges in the marketplace, organized events for home economics teachers, pioneered a newspaper column on fresh commodities, and teaching consumers how to select fresh produce. Today he is perhaps one of the longest-tenured agricultural executives in the state. As such, he is is widely-known across agriculture circles as his efforts on behalf of the citrus industry sometimes carry over into other commodities and agriculture in general.
Current CCM Board Chairman Curt Holmes says part of the organization’s mission includes constantly meeting with regulators and lawmakers in a continued effort to make them aware of issues important to the industry. Aside from Huanglongbing issues, which have commanded the industry’s attention since it was found in California in 2012, water sits atop industry concerns.
“We’re hoping that if we speak long enough and loud enough we can swing the pendulum back in our favor,” Holmes said. “There’s no way we can farm when SGMA gets implemented the way it’s going to be. There’s got to be more water supplies.”
To date Holmes says CCM has been successful in its negotiations on federal issues, including Farm Bill programs that could help the citrus industry.
Citrus mutual’s influence did not happen overnight, but rather came through a series of “watershed moments” Nelsen says can be attributed to the organization’s success and clout in agricultural and political circles.
One was an industry-wide advertising program CCM wanted, but Sunkist, the dominant marketer of the day, didn’t. Nelsen said he and Sunkist leadership negotiated a deal that was voted upon by growers. The controversial plan failed, but through it Nelsen developed a good working relationship with Sunkist.
Another of these moments came with the 1990 freeze, which wiped out the state’s citrus crop as temperatures in the San Joaquin Valley never warmed above 25 degrees for several days.
“We took this seriously,” Nelsen said. As offers of assistance came in from Sacramento and Washington, CCM continued to assert itself as a voice of the California citrus grower.
“You couldn’t solve the freeze or the lack of revenue, but you could create some solutions for growers,” he continued.
Nelsen says the organization’s success it’s not just about him, but his board of directors and staff. He also talks positively about leadership in the citrus industry that two years ago recognized a new challenge in Huanglongbing, a lethal citrus disease discovered four years earlier in a southern California yard and was already responsible for reduced commercial citrus production in Florida and Texas.
“I invited a handful of people into a room in Exeter and explained the situation and suggested we do something,” Nelsen said. This was the genesis of construction of the new biosafety level 3 (BSL3) laboratory next to the University of California, Riverside campus that the citrus industry will own and control.
“Within 60 days we had commitments to fund the lab and 60 days after that we had $7 million in the bank,” Nelsen said.
“It’s not that I did that; it’s that the industry provided the leadership to generate support to accomplish an objective,” he continued.
Nelsen says the primary goal of the BSL3 facility is to find a cure for HLB and beat back the disease so it’s not an issue to commercial growers. To date well-over 800 residential citrus trees across southern California diagnosed with the disease have been removed and destroyed by state officials. The disease has not been found in commercial citrus, though growers and the industry suspect it may be there.
Holmes says the BSL3 lab is an important step in addressing that challenge as growers look for resistant trees and early detection methods.
The proliferation of HLB in southern California has CCM and others in the citrus industry on edge as over 850 diseased residential trees have been removed in the greater Los Angeles area because of confirmed disease testing. Though the disease has yet to be found in commercial citrus, industry officials are not counting their blessings just yet as some will quietly admit they believe the disease may be hiding in a commercial grove somewhere.
That’s why Nelsen says the industry will soon begin the difficult conversations surrounding the probably discovery of HLB in commercial California groves.
While the state currently tests residential trees for HLB, it does not do the same in commercial groves. Growers must do this at their own cost and effort.
The larger concern becomes when a grower finds HLB – what does he or she do? Will they quietly go on; will they remove that tree and replant; or, will the industry force additional trees to be removed as a potential safeguard against harboring a disease that is not completely understood?
When talks of a “trade war” between China and the United States recently became public “citrus got hit first with these trade tariffs,” Holmes said. “And that’s when we landed in Washington.”
Nelsen told members at a recent membership meeting that the citrus industry’s inclusion in the trade disputes was “an unintended consequence” of larger trade negotiations President Trump was engaging with other nations over things like intellectual property rights and the unfair balance of trade affecting U.S. aluminum and steel manufacturers.
“Those guys are hurting,” Nelsen says of the metal manufacturers.
Nelsen believes the Trump Administration is trying to fix trade problems left unsolved by previous administrations, and that’s why CCM is actively working with the USDA on potential solutions to ensure the California citrus industry does not suffer unduly by potential trade tariffs.
Still, citrus stands to be negatively impacted by Chinese tariffs that CCM is working to address.
Holmes told federal officials “if the citrus industry is going to be a pawn to leverage other deals, then you’ve got to help us out. We need help with water and HLB to keep us in business.”
Holmes farms various citrus varieties from Reedley to McFarland. As a grower he knows he can’t simply focus on HLB but must concern himself with an onslaught of state and federal regulations that reduces his returns and threatens to put him out of business.
“Water is a huge deal for us as well,” Holmes says.
He receives irrigation water from the large Friant Water Authority system, which several years ago was drawn into the larger federal water curtailments that left growers with no surface irrigation in the state.
Holmes points to California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) and other water issues that could regulate farmers out of sufficient irrigation supplies.
“We have a lot of ground that doesn’t have district water, which could idle tens of thousands of acres,” he continued.
Win some, lose some
Nelsen admits the organization doesn’t win them all. He points to the recent USDA decision to allow lemons from Argentina into the United States after a successful 1998 effort to keep the fruit out of the country because of pest and disease concerns.
Holmes says it’s still too early to tell how the import of Argentine lemons into the U.S. will affect California’s industry, “but it can’t help.”
Nevertheless, CCM maintains credibility in state and federal discussions by remaining vigilant and a constant presence in political circles. This was evident with Nelsen’s recent promotion to chair the USDA’s Agricultural Trade Advisory Committee for specialty crops. He was asked several years ago to serve on this committee after helping the USDA resolve a free trade agreement with South Korea that at first did not go well for the United States, but one in which CCM was initially not involved.
California Citrus Mutual is a voluntary membership organization representing 75-80 percent of the industry, which produces much of the nation’s fresh-market citrus. The organization is based in Exeter, Calif.