Florida Roots

Florida Roots

Steven Callaham Wins 2020 Citrus Achievement Award

By PAUL CATALA

As a Polk County native who was born and raised in Lake Wales during a time when the city had a substantially larger presence in the citrus industry, Steven Callaham was literally surrounded by the citrus industry.

Most of his friends and friends’ families were connected to the citrus business, so it wasn’t unexpected that Callaham would go sweet on the industry, too.

Now 48, Callaham has spent that past 25 years working on the fresh fruit side of the Florida citrus industry. During the past two and a half decades, his innovation, dedication and devotion to a signature Florida industry brought a deserved recognition to fruition.

In April, Callaham, who is chief executive officer of Dundee Citrus Growers Association (DCGA), was named the 2020 Florida Grower Citrus Achievement Award winner. The award, presented by Frank Giles, editor of Florida Grower, was a crystal achievement vase.

Callaham, DCGA’s CEO since 2003, said Giles called him about the recognition and he was “very honored” to have found out about the selection.

“It was a very humbling thing to hear that I was getting the award,” says Callaham, sitting in his DCGA office in downtown Dundee. He adds that he’s never been in the citrus business seeking recognition or attention, but to do his best in helping the citrus industry strive throughout Polk County and beyond.

“I just like to do the very best job I can. I don’t know who nominated me, so I was very surprised to have gotten (the award),” he says.

A graduate of Polk State College and the University of Florida, where he majored in horticultural sciences with an emphasis on citrus, Callaham also serves on other industry and community boards such as: The Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Florida Citrus Packers, the Citrus Administrative Committee, Cooperative Producers, Ranch One Cooperative, Gulf Harvesting, Statewide Harvesting and Hauling, Florida Classic Growers and the Lake Wales Care Center.

After graduating from UF, Callaham began working at the Lake Wales Citrus Growers Association and four years later, joined DCGA to manage harvesting operations. 

Lake Wales and Winter Haven citrus growers’ associations merged with DCGA and in 2003, at 31 years old, Callaham was promoted to CEO and executive vice president and was the youngest CEO in DCGA’s history. He coordinated efforts of more than 200 member growers with more than 10,000 acres among them. Callaham’s achievements were partly accomplished through Callaham’s efforts to help growers weather the storm brought on by Huanglongbing (HLB), or citrus greening, and the Asian citrus psyllid. Among those was a program implemented by DCGA, providing members loans for new trees and plantings. Those loans were dismissed if a grower could take fruit to the coop for a specified time. 

Another notch in Callaham’s career tree comes from his innovative work with Citrus Under Protective Screen (CUPS), a new growing system under protective screens that yields high-quality citrus but minimizing the amount of fertilizer, water and pesticides. 

Callaham says the CUPS system stems from research by Arnold Schumann, a professor of soil and water sciences at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Callaham added that DCGA began its own CUPS Phase I program in fall 2017 at their 110-acre complex in Bartow and the first harvest is set for this fall. Those trees are about 15 months old and six feet tall. 

The CUPS Phase II trees were planted on a 113-acre area across from Phase I and between the two phases, there are about 70,000 CUPS.

Ground has already been broken for Phase III and once those trees mature, Callaham says there will be close to 100,000 CUPS trees for eventual harvesting on 300 acres.

“(CUPS) produces more with less land and less water. We get three to four times the amount of fruit per acre with CUPS than you would with traditional outside plantings,” says Callaham, who lives in Winter Haven with his wife, Keri and children Hanna, 21, Landon, 19 and Hayes, 14. 

“We tried to glean the positive aspects from (Schumann’s) research and combine it with what we already knew about growing citrus and brought it to the commercial level.”

Innovation and a drive to make the citrus industry grow stronger are two reasons why Callaham deserves the Citrus Achievement Award, according to Lindsey Raley, president and chairman of the board for DCGA. 

Raley is also president of Raley Groves, with about 1,200 acres of citrus in Polk, Highlands, Hardee and Collier counties. He says he’s known Callaham since Callaham joined the DCGA in 1999.

“(Callaham) is hardworking, innovative and unassuming and just one of the nicest individuals I’ve ever met,” says Raley. “Early on, (DCGA) faces some challenges, especially when HLB impacted the industry. Steve really put into place a lot of programs that helped sustain (DCGA) to where it is today.”

As for his future in citrus, Callaham says he’s happy to be in a position to help Florida’s citrus industry continue to thrive despite ceaseless urbanization and never-ending changes in citrus technology.