Emotions run high as divided citrus panel votes down tax increase for marketing; some growers fear collapse, and unsold OJ languishes

Millions of gallons of Florida orange juice are in storage waiting to be sold, because traditional buyers are importing oranges from Brazil and Mexico and U.S. demand for OJ is down sharply. Photo by Diane Miller, Getty Images

While millions of gallons of unsold orange juice languish in storage, the newly reshuffled and divided Florida Citrus Commission defeated proposals Wednesday to increase the tax Florida citrus growers self-impose for marketing.

Growers are having trouble selling their harvests because buyers are importing citrus from Brazil and Mexico.

On split votes, commissioners twice voted down motions to raise the tax on 90-pound boxes of citrus to 12 cents, up from the current 7 cents.

The increase, desired by members who are citrus growers or represent them, would have generated about $2 million in new funds for advertising in hopes of selling the surplus juice more quickly. The 7-cent box tax generates about $5 million annually.

Also on split votes, commissioners voted down motions to hold the box tax at 7 cents, as favored by members who represent handlers and processors who buy imported fruit as well as Florida’s own.

After more than three hours of discussion, the commission agreed to leave the tax unchanged and instead dip into the the Department of Citrus’ $13 million savings account for “up to $2 million” for expanded advertising. Funds would be released piecemeal based on which marketing ideas the commission hears and likes, if any.

Commissioner Marty McKenna, a grower, called for an increase in the box tax to generate recurring new revenue for amped-up advertising aimed at restoring the popularity of orange juice, which has fallen off steeply.

“We have to put our best foot forward … or we’re just digging a deeper hole,” McKenna said. He opposed tapping the $13 million savings account, saying it is there to bolster future generations of growers who will face market crises and worsening weather challenges.

In letters to the commission, 13 of the state’s largest citrus-growing companies and Florida Citrus Mutual, the largest citrus association, spoke against raising the box tax and expressed greater interest in pursuing entry into federal marketing programs.

Newly appointed Commissioner Paul Meador, a grower and harvester, made a motion to establish an exploratory committee for that purpose, seconded by newly appointed Commissioner Bill Poulton, manufacturing director for Tropicana Products. The motion was defeated amid comments that such a panel should be funded by private interests, not by the state citrus department.

Five days before Wednesday’s meeting, Gov. Ron DeSantis replaced three of the nine members of the Florida Citrus Commission, tipping the balance in the panel’s composition.

Two of the three new appointees are growers and handlers; one is a processor. They took the place of two growers and a processor.

The other commissioners include three growers, a third handler and three representatives of major corporations: PepsiCo, owner of Tropicana; Coca-Cola, owner of Minute Maid; and Southern Gardens Citrus, owned by U.S. Sugar. The Coca-Cola representative did not attend the meeting Wednesday.

Several growers spoke emotionally in favor of raising the taxes they pay.

“I can’t think of a better way to spend that money,” said Christian Spinosa, who said he is a sixth-generation grower with 1,000 acres of groves. “If we’re going to be here two years from now (the situation) has got to change. Staying at seven cents is changing nothing.”

Jared Eddy said he could survive taking a big loss on his harvest this year if relief were in sight.

“If you can give me some kind of hope … I’ll consider that a win and walk out of here feeling optimistic about the future,” Eddy said. “At seven cents, I’ll walk out feeling doom and gloom, like I have the last six months.”

Ray Royce, spokesman for the Highland County Citrus Growers Association, said growers large and small in his organization are willing to look at long-term changes favored by the processing and importing side of the industry, but they want short-term help to shore up Florida growers who are at risk of collapsing.

Royce said he was surprised to see the commission resolve its deadlock by agreeing to tap the citrus savings account, rather than compromising on a mid-range increase in the box tax.

The vote to spend up to $2 million from savings does not obligate commissioners to spend any of it, unlike box-tax revenue that would have been earmarked for marketing.

Five days before Wednesday’s meeting, Gov. Ron DeSantis replaced three of the nine members of the Florida Citrus Commission, tipping the balance of the panel’s composition.

Two of the three new appointees are both growers and handlers; one is a processor. They took the place of two growers and a processor.

The other commissioners include three growers, a third handler and three representatives of major corporations: PepsiCo, owner of Tropicana; Coca-Cola, owner of Minute Maid; and Southern Gardens Citrus, owned by U.S. Sugar. The Coca-Cola representative did not attend the meeting Wednesday.

In an earlier version of this story, the identification of the commissioner who made the motion for an exploratory committee was incorrect. The Phoenix regrets the error. The motion was made by Commissioner Paul Meador.