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Matt Vic and Kyle Story in one of their citrus groves
<p> Matt, Vic, and Kyle Story in one of their citrus groves.</p>

Vic Story — Hang in there, he says: Florida citrus future looks interesting

Story, 65, is the current president of Florida Citrus Mutual, an 8,000-member cooperative grower association geared toward production, marketing and legislative policy.

White cowboy hat atop his head, Vic Story sweeps a big right hand at his Chevy Tahoe and says, “Have a seat in my office.” Folders and paperwork cover the dash. Boxes and cases line the back seat, where spare clothes hang from a hook over the door. In the rear compartment, well-used tools await duty on a raised wood platform.

“I would get something smaller than a Tahoe,” he says, “but then I couldn’t get all my stuff in there. It’s my vehicle, my office and my closet.”

At headquarters of The Story Companies on U.S. 27 in Lake Wales, Fla., Vic, the outfit’s president, has no office. He keeps some business-related things on a corner of the desk manned by his 29-year-old son, Kyle, the citrus-growing company’s vice president and harvest manager.

In the brief periods when he’s present at headquarters, Vic heads to a small round table located in a back corner by the refrigerator, where he sits drinking bottled water and talking on a cell phone. These days, that phone buzzes frequently and there’s plenty to talk about.

Story, 65, is the current president of Florida Citrus Mutual, an 8,000-member cooperative grower association geared toward production, marketing and legislative policy. He just came off a term as vice chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission, which serves as a board of directors for the Florida Department of Citrus, funded by a per-box assessment paid by growers. In addition, he’s involved with many other industry groups, including the Citrus Research and Development Foundation, and is former mayor of Lake Wales.

Like other veteran Florida citrus producers, Story persevered through years of troubles. A 1989 freeze destroyed one-third of his trees, exotic diseases seemingly without cure attacked rapid-fire, and the market for fruit bounced through so many ups and downs it could make a Zen Buddhist monk a nervous wreck. Surviving all that gave him a calm sort of wisdom that helps put problems of the moment in perspective.

“Oranges are still hand-harvested, for the most part,” Story says. “It requires a lot of labor. The people who do it have to be young, able-bodied and willing to work hard. They make good wages doing it, but we don’t seem to be able to fill these jobs with domestic labor. Citrus growers don’t want to break the laws, and they don’t do it intentionally. It’s hard, hard work to pick fruit — people aren’t used to doing that kind of work, and most people just aren’t going to do it.”

He anticipates many potential problems with the E-Verify system that would require employers to check the immigration status of employees. He also calls for changes to the U.S. Labor Department’s H-2A temporary agricultural worker program that lets growers legally bring foreign workers into the country.

“There is too much bureaucracy with the H-2A program. The requirements are burdensome and expensive. Rural Legal Services preys on the program, and there are too many lawsuits, which are expensive to defend. There needs to be tort reform,” he says.

“And growers are required to pay a higher wage scale for H-2A workers than for domestic workers, while also providing transportation and housing. They earn that money, and I don’t quibble with that. Still, the H-2A program needs a lot of tweaks.”

Adequate funding for research to battle the Florida industry’s tough disease threats ranks second on Story’s list of challenges.

Citrus greening disease caused by the psyllid vector has been the top agronomic problem for many growers over the past five years or so. It will likely not be defeated until resistant varieties come on the market, which will take several years.

Until then, growers should step up nutrition programs, making at least six to eight applications with micronutrients each year, and perhaps as many as 12 or more sprays.

“Research shows that foliar applications of nutrients make the trees healthier,” Story says. “The disease blocks uptake of nutrients from the roots. The trees have to get nutrients somehow. With this method, we’re still losing trees, but not at the rate we thought we would. The trees are producing more fruit. But it’s expensive. Average production cost five years ago was $800 an acre. Now, with this nutrient program, it’s $1,500 to $1,800.

“There’s a lot of research looking into a solution for greening disease, and we need to step up as an industry and support it. We’re looking for short, mid- and long-range solutions. The final solution may be developing a tree tolerant to it. But getting that tree into widespread production will take at least ten years.” USDA recently allocated $11 million to research the disease over the next four years — a good start, Story says.

Steering the Tahoe from grove to grove, pointing out local landmarks and the occasional greening-stricken tree, Story tells how his father, Victor Story, Sr., got started in the citrus business upon returning home from World War II as a decorated light bomber pilot who flew in North Africa and Europe.

He arrived back in Florida with a wife, Freida, a Michigan farm girl who served as an Army Air Corps nurse in North Africa. Though he came from a family of small merchants in central Florida, the elder Story soon bought 80 acres of citrus near Frostproof, tending it while working other jobs, including one as a rural mail carrier.

Intent on keeping expenses to a minimum, Victor and Freida raised Vic and his brother, Terry, in one room of a barn on the property.

“We had no heat, no air conditioning — nothing. Well, we did have a little screened porch, and we had electricity. But when you’re a kid, if you have something to eat and clothes and your parents love you, you don’t miss much. A lot of families lived like that around here back then. I mean, some families that are now prominent originally came here to pick fruit because they’d gone broke somewhere up north.

“Those first ten years were very hard for my dad. He really worked, and my brother and I worked alongside him. He was never really a farmer, but more of a businessman — he put everything back into the grove. I was 14 when we moved out of the barn.”

Story credits his mother with the family’s eventual success. “Not many women would have lived in that barn, but she let Dad get his start. It wasn’t easy for her. In North Africa during the war, she got a bad case of rheumatoid arthritis. She wasn’t able to work, though sometimes she did drive the pickup for us. She took aspirin for the arthritis, and it broke her blood vessels down.” She died at age 54, he says.

Vic joined his father in the citrus business in 1965, after serving in the Army Reserves and attending college. They began buying small groves. “We’d get ten-acre groves, little ones, and get the owner to finance them. Lenders wouldn’t talk to us. The groves were usually run down, and we’d fix them up. We’d get one paid for, then buy another one.”

By the mid-1980’s they built up to 3,000 acres of groves. Vic Story’s brother, Terry, also then a partner in the citrus company, ran a successful aerial application business. The family started their own harvesting company.

Then the severe 1989 freeze made them re-evaluate the business. They chose to not replace 1,000 acres of destroyed trees, sold that land, and started a citrus management service, catering mostly to absentee and small grove owners, as well as groves owned by outside investors like insurance companies. That business is now up to about 3,000 acres of trees.

“Citrus is a long-term proposition,” Story says. “A tree takes seven or eight years before it starts paying its way. If you don’t get at least 12 years out of a tree, you don’t recoup your investment. Citrus is like any other commodity — it has its ups and downs. If you’re in it for the long haul, it can be a good investment. That’s why I think it’s important to pass groves on to the next generation.”

Two of Story’s five children work with him in the family business today. Kyle, 29, handles marketing, harvesting and investments. Matt, 34, serves as production manager for the groves. All three watch for promising new opportunities.

For one example, they recently planted nine acres of peaches on land that had been in tangerines. The University of Florida developed the new peach variety for Florida’s hot, humid climate.

“It could be a niche for us,” Story says. “Florida peaches have a window of opportunity in April when there’s not much competition.”

Victor Story, Sr., died in 2006, at age 88. Three words are on his tombstone: Family, Honor, Integrity. He tended to his own business and was not active in politics or industry organizations. But, he allowed his son to follow his instincts and do those things — for which Vic Story is grateful. “Dad never forced me to do anything,” he says.

He laughs and says his wife, Anna, sometimes asks why he doesn’t spend his time on things that at least pay a little money. “Farmers need to be very active in the community,” he says. “My son Matt is now on the county planning commission.

“I know this isn’t where every farmer feels comfortable. But I think it’s important to be in the public arena in order to have a voice in the kinds of issues that can affect farmers. We need to have personal relationships with our representatives at the county, state and federal levels.

“Association executives are good people and can help craft an issue, but when a farmer can speak to the issue before congressional committees, nothing can replace that. I know I’m not a polished speaker. I’m not a professional lobbyist. But members of Congress cut me a little slack because they want to get to the heart of the issue, and I do, too.”

Story foresees more consolidation on the grower level for the Florida citrus industry due to increasing production costs. “Production practices now are more intense and more expensive. Some growers don’t have the vision for that.

“We’re going to raise more fruit per acre on fewer acres, maybe with the high density planting now being researched. It’ll be a slow process. I think we’re going to find ways to manage almost every problem, like diseases we now have. It’s going to take a real commitment on the part of growers. Some just aren’t going to make that kind of financial commitment. Another thing: we’re all going to have to work hard at marketing fruit for the best price we can get.”

At times, things may get tough, as they have in the past. But, Story says, “I’m confident we’re going to be okay. We’ve got the best quality juice in the world — our juice is superior. We’ve been pretty judicious about our standards in Florida, and it has paid off.”

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