AgriBiz Profiles

Advantage Hedging & Topping: Citrus Trees Responding to Nutrition and ‘Drastic Cuts’

Like many people in the citrus industry, April Miller is doing business differently these days because of citrus greening disease. Miller, who travels around the state giving citrus trees “haircuts” to encourage new growth, is now being asked to make “drastic cuts.” In the last three years, instead of cutting off new growth— approximately a foot long— she may cut three to four, or more, feet.

“They’re seeing that topping [trimming the tops of trees] right now is helping, along with the nutrition plan,” Miller observes. “That’s what they’re trying to do until they can find a cure for this greening.” In her travels, the owner and president of Advantage Hedging & Topping, Inc. has seen “unbelievable” fruit drop and fruit the size of golf balls. So the positive results brought about by drastic cuts and an improved nutrition program are pretty exciting.

For example, at Bethel Farms in Arcadia, where Miller topped trees, the groves have had a startling turnaround. There Jonathan Brown, senior vice president of production, has used the Hydrashield Nano Technologies nutrition program in conjunction with good cultural practices (basically hedging and topping) to revitalize the grove. He put the program in place after conferring with scientists in California about his soil samples. “They’re doing something right,” Miller observes. “I’ve watched it in 18 months do a complete 180 [degrees].” The grove’s production was up 20 percent, while others suffered a decline of 30 to 40 percent. “I couldn’t believe the new feeder roots,” she adds.

Citrus trees have been dying from the inside as a result of greening disease, which is killing their root systems. Growers now want to see every tree in the grove topped, regardless of its height, where before some would not be touched.

Miller has observed that growers in the south, where greening was first discovered in Florida in 2005, seem to be doing better than growers in the north, who developed problems later. Those in the south have had a head start with a nutrition program and drastic cuts, she points out.

Advantage Hedging & Topping trims 25,000 to 30,000 acres of citrus annually, in addition to assisting other growers in the agricultural industry and trimming along public highways. The company has a staff of eight operating from a Haines City office.

Miller has been in the business for more than 20 years. Her dad, Corky Willis, now 83, who owned Southern Grove Toppers for more than 30 years, taught her about the machines. Her mom, Carolyn, taught her the clerical side. The lessons have been invaluable, especially in a business where one wrong move can hurt production.

Although greening has been challenging for the entire industry, Miller states, “This is what we are; this is who we are. You just can’t hang your hat up and say, ‘We’re done.’”

Ag Flying Service: Fighting the Psyllid

Jerry Wise plays a key role in the battle against the Asian psyllid that spreads citrus greening disease. As a pilot and owner of Ag Flying Service Inc., Wise fights the psyllid from the air. “We feel like we’ve kind of reached the plateau,” he says, speaking about the battle against citrus greening. “One day we may be able to win the war.”

The company, with offices in Avon Park and Samson, Alabama, sprays some 100,000 plus acres every year, 60 percent of it in Florida.

Citrus greening, which was discovered in South Florida in 2005, is threatening the state’s $9 billion citrus industry. Coordinated sprays have had some success in reducing the psyllid count. Ag Flying Service handles most of the aerial psyllid sprays in Highland, DeSoto, Polk, and Hardee counties. The company alternates between three types of insecticides to minimize chances the psyllid will develop immunity.

Not every grove is sprayed from the air. “A lot of the growers are doing ground applications,” he explains. Whether from the ground or air, he believes sprays are important. “Everybody pulling together will probably be what means salvation for the citrus crop,” he asserts. “It just needs to get done.”

Before greening, folks in the industry ran their own individual programs. The community has since become “tighter,” and better acquainted, he points out. Ninety-six percent of Ag Flying Service’s business involves the citrus crop, with the rest of the work generated by dairy and produce farmers. The company with a staff of eight, including Wise and two other pilots, sprays insecticide and fungicide. They also make fertility and ant bait applications.

Wise is different from crop dusters who take a crash course in farming before they become aerial applicators. “I came from the ag field,” he explains. “I understand the blood, sweat, and tears that go into raising the crop.” His dad, Travis, raised cotton, corn, peanuts, and livestock. After his father died, Jerry raised cotton, corn, and peanuts while he continued to fly. He quit farming in 2006.

Wise became intrigued with the profession of crop dusting when he saw a crop duster regularly near the family’s Alabama farm. “He [Tommy Thompson] gave me my first ride,” recalls Wise, who was a preteen at the time. He learned to fly around age 20 and obtained a commercial license two years later, when he started spraying with a Piper Pawnee.

Wise loves seeing God’s creation from the air, and shares, “It’s so much prettier from the sky.”

Southern Graphics Designs: Proof that the American Dream Lives On

Juan Bocanegra made a fateful decision when he was nine years old. “One day, I’m going to own my own business,” he decided, as he picked peppers beside his mother in a Plant City field. “I want to work hard, and I want to work hard for myself.” Today, at 38, he is living the American dream, with his wife, four children— and a business.

Juan and his wife, Fabby, of Lakeland, own Southern Graphics Designs, which offers vehicle graphics, full vehicle wraps, exhibit graphics, and more. Through its Agri-Signs Division, it develops outdoor signage for agriculture operations. The Bocanegras have made it their job to help the agriculture community stay on top of governmental signage requirements.

Juan and Fabby learned the agriculture industry as migrant workers. Juan’s family migrated from Mexico in the 1970s. Although they traveled extensively, they considered Plant City their home. Juan met his wife, whose family also worked as migrant laborers, when they were in the seventh grade.

A year later, when Juan was only in eighth grade, he had to quit school to help his family earn a living. He returned to school later and earned his high school equivalency diploma. He worked in a landscaping company, then found a job in a box company, where he swept floors. Eventually, he worked his way to the top as superintendent.

He credits his background as a migrant worker for his success, because it taught him what hard work is. “I was very blessed to be able to grow up as a migrant worker,” he adds.

The couple began their business in their Lakeland garage in 2007. “I came up with the idea [to produce printed boxes farms use],” he recalls. “Fabby made the idea a reality.” His brothers talked him into the sign business.

The couple outgrew their garage, moved into a little office, and eventually outgrew that before moving to their current location in Mulberry. Now with a staff of seven, they serve more than 300 growers, doing some $200,000 in business annually throughout Florida and along the eastern seaboard. “It’s been an amazing adventure,” he says.

As the designer, Fabby “is the brains of the whole operation basically,” Juan explains. Now he is making plans to hire his mother, Maria, to work alongside him again— this time handling the embroidery of caps and t-shirts. His stepdad, Jose Roque, is a crew leader.

As the owner, Juan arranges his own schedule so he can still get “dirty” out in the field. “I don’t like getting stuck in the office,” he admits. “My favorite part of the job is installing the signs.”

Growers Fertilizer: From Co-op to Corporation

A group of Florida citrus growers banded together in 1934 to form a co-op. Eighty years later, the co-op turned corporation continues to serve the state’s agricultural industry, providing fertilizer for citrus, blueberries, peaches, and cattle hayfields.

Unlike other companies in the fertilizer business, Growers Fertilizer Corp. is a Florida company that serves Florida. Its product lines include custom fertilizers, plus pesticides and herbicides. The company employs 60 at its three locations in Lake Alfred, Dade City, and Newberry, near Gainesville.

The ninth largest fertilizer company in Florida, Growers Fertilizer made and sold more than 70,000 tons of fertilizer last year. Its sales topped $37 million for the 2013-2014 fiscal year. In addition to serving growers, it is a major supplier of lawn care products. “We’re able to run all different kinds of fertilizer at the same time. That makes us pretty unique,” says Brent Sutton, president and general manager.

The company also has the ability to customize a product in a day. “We are able to custom blend a fertilizer mix for whatever situation out there,” he says. Soil and leaf samples are used so the fertilizer can be made to suit growers’ specific requirements.

Growers Fertilizer offers a broad range of fertilizers from the bone meal and blood meal dry fertilizer it distributes in bags, to its own fertilizer blends manufactured from raw materials imported from all over the world. It brings in potash and nitrogen by boat from Russia to the port of Tampa, then trucks it to Lake Alfred. It also imports potash from Canada and Chile. The phosphate is from Polk County. “We bring in materials by rail, also by truck. It takes a lot of planning and logistics,” Sutton explains.

Rather than using the cheaper “dusty” ingredients, Growers Fertilizer prepares its bagged fertilizers with high-quality materials. “We pride ourselves in buying raw materials that are granular,” Sutton says.

The Dade City resident— from a citrus-growing family in Pinellas County— serves as vice chairman of the board at Lake Alfred’s Citrus Research and Education Center (CREC). He rotates between Growers Fertilizer’s three locations, although most days he takes a country drive to the main office and plant in Lake Alfred.

The plant conveniently recycles runoff water through pipes to its next door neighbor— a park and baseball field.

At the core of the business are those same citrus-growing families who began it so long ago: Bob Barben, Sr. and his family from Avon Park, John Strang representing the Adams family in Auburndale, and Steve Sorrels representing his family from Arcadia. Strang chairs the board of six; Sorrels is vice chair.


profiles by CHERYL ROGERS

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