Sorrells Citrus Inc.
After 42 years in the citrus business, Steve Sorrells, president of Sorrells Citrus Inc. (Sorrells Citrus) has seen his fair share of industry challenges, from hurricanes to crops freezing over and labor regulations, but he says Florida citrus growers are facing the biggest obstacle yet: the Citrus Greening disease or Huanglongbing (HLB). According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), HLB was first detected in Florida in 2005; by 2008 it had been identified in most of the citrus growing counties in the state and now, it undoubtedly poses the most serious threat the industry has ever come up against.
“I’ve been in the field for 42 years and there hasn’t been a year without challenges because this business is not for the faint of heart; there’s a lot of risk involved,” shares Steve. “But greening has the potential to shrink the Florida citrus industry like we’ve never seen before and it’s already happening; 10 years ago, we produced 250 million boxes and this year we produced 104 million.”
A family citrus tradition
This means do or die for family-owned Sorrells Citrus, a company that’s been in the business since the early 1950s. “The operation originated with my father, Robert Sorrells and his older twin brothers and youngest brother, Howard Sorrells,” recounts Steve. “They all grew up in a small town outside of Atlanta. After World War II, they started trucking oranges out of Florida up to the Atlanta market.”
The Sorrells brothers eventually purchased a packing house in Arcadia, Fla., where Sorrells Citrus still resides today. “I went to college at Georgia Tech and when I graduated in 1972, I took over for my father because he passed away from heart problems at 51 years old,” recalls Steve. “When my father passed away, the packing company went to my uncle Howard and my side of the family kept the growing acreage.”
Through the 1970s, the company added an additional 400 acres and started Sorrells Grove Inc. (Sorrells Grove) to serve smaller growers with caretaking, mowing, spraying and everything an operation needs maintenance-wise. “In the 1980s, there were several deep freezes in Florida,” recounts Steve. “This drove the cash price of fruit up and made it difficult for us to compete with cooperatives, so we shut the packing house down and instead added more acreage.”
Today, Sorrells Citrus sells its fruit to processing plants that support some of the biggest names in the business such as Florida’s Natural, Minute Maid and Tropicana. “We now own more than 5,000 acres and we buy and move approximately 3 to 5 million boxes of fruit a year,” reveals Steve. “We also harvest for other people too; we do a little bit of everything.”
Sorrells Citrus runs its own fleet with 17 trucks and some 200 trailers within a 50 mile radius of Arcadia. During peak season from October to June, the company participates in the federal guest worker program, allowing for an additional 450 harvesters from Mexico. “Our labor runs through our subsidiary, Desoto Fruit Harvesting,” explains Steve. “Through this program we offer more than minimum wage, free room and board and free transportation.”
But with less fruit and smaller fruit due to greening, Steve says harvesting costs are going up along with everything else and the company has looking to other orange alternatives. “Growing is a huge expense but so is caretaking, which use to be $1,200 to $1,500-an-acre, now it’s up to more like $2,000-an-acre to combat greening and we’re producing 30 percent less,” he compares.
“We’re working on getting into blueberries, which is becoming a more prevalent fruit crop in Florida due to the dwindling orange crop,” continues Steve. “We’re already working with growers and other companies to learn more about harvesting, crop care and transport.”
Optimistic for a solution
With no cure in sight for greening, Steve says he’s worried it’s almost too late for the citrus industry. “It’s very real and its putting orange growers out of business every day because they can’t bring in enough product to pay the bills,” he weighs. “We haven’t got there yet, but many have. Overall the state has probably already lost 25 percent of acreage to greening.”
According to the ARS, Citrus Greening is a disease caused by the Asian citrus psyllid, a small insect that feeds on the leaves and stems of citrus trees. Psyllids are dangerous because they transmit a disease that is fatal for citrus and once a tree is infected with HLB the tree’s health begins to decline, rarely bearing usable fruit.
“It’s very difficult when a farmer’s best asset is next year’s crop,” says Steve, who serves on the Florida Citrus Mutual board, an organization that’s lobbying for action to protect the industry. “The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could step in by labeling microbial applications safe for citrus as it already has for apples, pears and peaches, but it needs to all go through the testing process which they say could take a couple of years, but I’m not sure if we have a couple of years.”
Yet, Steve remains optimistic for change but warns the industry will not be the same. “Things are going to look very different when growers come out the other side of this issue,” he assures. “Without greening, Sorrells Citrus has been steadily growing every year, but this is the first year that we haven’t added acreage, but we continue to find ways to grow and new crops to diversify into.”
As a father of three children, Steve is doing his best to pass the family tradition on. “My middle son, Justin, works with me on the harvesting management side,” he shares. “At the end of the day I enjoy being a farmer and raising citrus; to me, coming to work every morning is a joy, it’s not a job.”
But the hope for the Sorrells and many other Florida growers is change and a solution so they can keep the jobs they love. Sorrells Citrus Inc. is setting an example, working to spread the message and building on 42 years of grower history.