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Exeter at epicenter of California citrus industry

Exeter at epicenter of California citrus industry

California Citrus Mutual celebrates trade association’s 40th anniversary on Nov. 16 

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – On Nov. 16, California Citrus Mutual (CCM) will celebrate 40 years as the “Voice of the Citrus Grower” at its Annual Meeting held at the Visalia Convention Center. And while its title accurately describes the statewide representation of its membership today, its beginnings were confined to the Tulare County citrus belt between Lindsay, Exeter and Ivanhoe.

CCM President Joel Nelson said a group of eastern Tulare County citrus growers got together in 1977 to identify why there was a lack of revenue per acre in their industry. They considered forming a bargaining association to help set prices in the market, but after visiting Florida and Texas they determined what works in processed markets, such as orange juice, does not in the fresh market of fruit from the tree. They instead opted to create a weekly newsletter with market pricing information, trends and other trade-level data that would eventually become the bible of the citrus industry.

About 100 growers attended California Citrus Mutual’s (CCM) first annual meeting in 1978, a year after the trade association was formed in Exeter. Photo courtesy of California Citrus Mutual.

About 100 growers attended California Citrus Mutual’s (CCM) first annual meeting in 1978, a year after the trade association was formed in Exeter. Photo courtesy of California Citrus Mutual.

“The original role of CCM was to be an unbiased source of market information and price data,” said Nelson. “While that function remains a key benefit of membership, our influence and leadership within and outside the industry is far broader.”

The association experienced a watershed moment during the citrus freeze of 1990. One of the most devastating citrus freezes in the region’s history, temperatures dropped below 25 degrees for several hours per night for a week, not just crushing the crop but killing commercially producing trees. Nelson and CCM’s other senior staff were constantly in contact with Sacramento and Washington, D.C. working on disaster relief legislation, property tax exemptions and payment deferrals to try and protect farmers from losing everything.

“That freeze and our work was a catalyst to attract more membership and packing houses began to appreciate our newsletter,” said Nelson, who has led the grower association since 1982

CCM firmly entrenched itself as a trade industry leader during the 1998 freeze. While not as severe as 1990, the industry still lost 85% of its crop. But instead of waiting for federal relief to come in a few years, Nelson said CCM was able to put pressure on legislators to provide disaster funds within the same year and including provisions to assist employees who were laid off.

Within the next five years, Nelson said CCM was able to convince Governor Gray Davis to eliminate a state sales tax on farm equipment that 48 states had already erased, won a three-year legal battle with White House to ban the importation of Argentine lemons, and raise its political profile to be among the “top four” of influential trade associations in California agriculture.

“Whether it be interacting with policy makers or fostering open lines of communication within our own industry, our objective is first and foremost to create a business climate that ensures citrus growers have a sustainable future in California,” Nelson said.

The two freezes less than a decade apart helped CCM broaden its the mission to be an advocate for policies that allow for fair competition and to share with members of the public, the legislature, regulatory agencies, and others how the citrus industry supports the economic and environmental health of California and its people. Since that time, CCM has helped organize its annual Citrus Showcase to inform growers of issues looming over their industry, developed a new standard for measuring navel oranges based on consumer preferences, and sponsored research to prevent spread of the fatal tree disease Huanglongbing including a boardgame to educate students on the issue. CCM remains the only trade association dedicated solely to representing the interests of California’s citrus growers on the issues that impact them most.

“Over the years, our mission has expanded to meet the growing and changing needs of the industry,” said Nelsen. “

Today the association represents over 2,500 growers and 75% of the state’s $3.3 billion citrus industry. One of those members farming 300 acres just down the road from CCM’s headquarters in Exeter is Brian Neufeld. Like most growers, Neufeld is keenly aware of the quality of fruit, both in appearance and flavor, that is demanded by today’s consumers. In order to provide those bright, waxy looking pieces of fruit, Neufeld said CCM fought to keep pesticides on the market that produced quality citrus and also helped educate the consumer about its affect on pollinators. He said one of the most effective pesticides that he uses was set to be banned because there was a misconception that it was harmful to bees despite testing that said it was not if applied properly.

“I don’t have time to keep up to go and do all of these things that constantly affect my ability to do business. I’m in my car going between groves or in the field,” Neufeld said. “But CCM is there to keep up with all of that.”

CCM Chairman Curt Holmes, returning for a second term as Chair of the Board of Directors describes the association as a unifier, “As I look to the future of California Citrus Mutual, I am excited and optimistic for things to come.  If the results of the past are an indication of the future, I am confident that CCM will continue to lead, shape, and unify our industry into a cohesive force so that the growers, employees, and support industries remain prosperous.”

Holmes said CCM has been on the forefront of issues that affect growers’ ability to stay viable in today’s economy, such as protecting the area of imports from pest and disease-infected parts of the world, and educating growers on ways to combat invasive species that are already here, such as the citrus-greening carrying Asian citrus psyllid (ACP).

“Finds of ACP are going down in our area, which says a lot about the types of practices we have implemented here, and a lot of that has to do with CCM. When CCM speaks the industry listens and they also have the ear of Sacramento and Washington,” Holmes said.

CCM will celebrate some of its milestones and its growers during its Annual Meeting at the Visalia Convention Center on Nov. 6, 2017. Doors open at 6 p.m. with a no-host reception followed by dinner and the evening’s program at 7 p.m.

Attendees will be entertained by the thought-provoking and insightful commentary of syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette. A Selma native, Navarrette is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group and is a regular guest commentator on CNN, CNBC and Fox News Channel.

Tickets are $50 per person and can be purchased by contacting California Citrus Mutual at 559-592-3790. Tables of 8 and 10 are available.

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