Citrus showcase details the state of the industry

The annual conference focused on efforts to combat HLB, impacts of labor laws, trends in the citrus market

By Kaitlin Washburn

@kwashy12

VISALIA – California’s biggest citrus showcase came to Visalia on Thursday, highlighting the state of industry and exploring the issues citrus growers face.

Hundreds attended the all-day conference at the Visalia Convention Center, and featured 130 exhibitors and three workshops that discussed the current citrus market and business trends, efforts to combat HLB, a devastating citrus disease, and the labor laws and regulations currently impacting agriculture.

“The 2020 citrus showcase was a great success thanks to the support we received from our sponsors, exhibitors, speakers, and attendees,” said Casey Creamer, the president of California Citrus Mutual, the organization behind the event.

“The showcase provided a forum for networking between all areas of the industry. It was great to see the industry together to make those connections throughout the day,” Creamer said.

California combating HLB

Dr. Georgios Vidalakis, a plant pathology and microbiology researcher from UC Riverside, described California’s collaborative approach to prevent Huanglongbing (HLB), a devastating citrus disease, from destroying the state’s citrus groves.

Huanglongbing, also known as HLB, citrus greening disease or yellow shoot disease, has been decimating citrus crops in Florida and Texas. The asian citrus psyllid, a carrier of HLB, has been in California for 11 years, but the disease has yet to significantly appear in the state.

Vidalakis said that is no accident. State and federal agencies along with researchers and universities throughout the state have been working together to ward off the disease.

California’s citrus industry is significant, passing up Florida as the biggest citrus producing state in 2016. Florida’s industry has been struggling as it grapples with HLB and the impacts of natural disasters like hurricanes that strike the state, Vidalakis said.

“This disease is the real deal, and it spread fast in Florida,” Vidalakis said. “Poor Floridians, it’s not that they don’t know how to farm, it’s that their elements are against them.”

Vidalakis said HLB’s potential to harm California’s citrus industry is worrying. Luckily, the state has taken the threat of the disease seriously, establishing committees to monitor the disease and determine the best practices to combat its effects.

“A recent study on the economic contributions of the citrus industry in California showed that a 20% reduction in citrus production would result in thousands of jobs lost and millions of dollars lost on the state’s GDP,” he said.

Vidalakis said there are three phases of how a disease enters a region. The first is exclusion, which means there’s not a problem and nothing to deal with. The next is eradication — the disease has arrived but is not widespread yet, which is the stage California is at with HLB.

The final stage is management, meaning the region is living with the disease and managing its impacts, which is where Florida is currently at, Vidalakis said.

Going forward, Florida is figuring out how to recover and California is working on avoiding the worst of the disease. And Vidalakis said one solution is the development of HLB-tolerant varieties of citrus plants, which researchers are in the process of fine tuning.

But that’s a long way off. Developing HLB resistant plants will take 20 or so years, which is about how long it will take trees to grow, to produce fruit, to collect data and to prove it is truly resistant, Vidalakis said.

Impacts of labor laws

The final workshop of the showcase covered the major labor law issues currently impacting growers. Panelists included Michael Saqui, an attorney with the Saqui Law Group; Rudy Mendoza, the director of the California Agricultural Labor Association; and David and Steve Scaroni from the Scaroni Family of Companies.

Saqui, whose law practice focuses on employer-employee relations, discussed Assembly Bill 5, a landmark labor law in California that came into effect this year.

AB5 changed how independent contractors are classified in the state. The law is based off a 2018 California Supreme Court decision, which established the ABC test for determining whether someone should be an employee or independent contractor.

“They call it the ABC test as if it’s so easy and simple, but it’s really one of our most important issues for our clients,” Saqui said.

The part of the test Saqui emphasized was an exemption that allowed for business-to-business transactions, meaning the work being done is an exchange between two business entities.

For example, if a grower relies on someone else for their pesticide application, the person who comes to apply the pesticides must use their own equipment, have a legitimate business and maintain a set of clients.

The next portion of the discussion focused on labor contractors, both the good and the bad.

As the director of the California Agricultural Labor Association, Mendoza has seen his fair share of workplace violations. His organization helps growers and labor contractors ensure they are implementing proper labor protections and their workplaces are compliant.

He showed attendees images of various offenses, including scattered beer cans, faulty equipment, broken toilets and dirty first aid kits.

“We all have to work together to fix this,” Mendoza said. “All of these things are preventable, what are you going to do to put a stop to this?”

Steve and David Scaroni manage a labor contractor business that takes advantage of the H-2A visa program, which provides temporary work visas for agriculture-related work.

David Scaroni said H-2A has its pluses and minuses. A benefit of the program is it provides a grower with a legal workforce. He said it helps that crews stick to one crop, regardless of what’s happening with other commodities in the industry. That also means the work done is a better quality.

The program also has its flaws, Steve Scaroni said. It’s a complex process to navigate and a significant expense. But as they’ve figured out how to manage H-2A, Scaroni said, he hopes the government protects it.

“H-2A is the devil we know,” Steve Scaroni said. “We are not going to get immigration reform this year or likely in my lifetime.”

Citrus market trends

Creamer, president of California Citrus Mutual, moderated a discussion on the state of the citrus industry with the head honchos of California’s biggest citrus businesses. The panel included Al Bates, president of Sun Pacific Shippers, Zak Laffite, Wonderful Citrus president, Jim Phillips, president of Sunkist Growers, and Dave Smith, general manager for Booth Ranches.

The panel focused on how the industry has taken hits from a number of fronts — retaliatory tariffs from China, declining citrus demand and consumption, competition with international producers and the impacts of COVID-19, or coronavirus, on Asian ports.

The showcase’s luncheon featured Randy Russell, California Citrus Mutual’s lobbyist, who gave his insights on the 2020 election and issues in Washington, D.C. impacting the citrus industry.

“We are proud to be able to put on an event that helps make that happen and continues to be a critical resource for citrus growers,” Creamer said.

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