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Jul 14, 2017

Onward, upward and together at last – the citrus industry

Citrus fruit production is Belize’s oldest agro-industry, but in profitability has long been overtaken by sugar and is barely keeping ahead of others. A combination of internal turmoil and shocks from natural disasters have contributed to steadily declining fortunes and an urgent need to arrest that decline with a massive infusion of capital, new plant stock and collective will. The industry’s main growers’ associations, the Citrus Growers Association and Belize Citrus Mutual sat jointly with the Ministry of Agriculture on Monday to talk about plans to restore citrus to its good days. The former bad blood between the C.G.A. and Citrus Mutual has been forgiven as their chief executives sat with News Five today in Belmopan to review the season past and look to the future. Aaron Humes reports.

 

Aaron Humes, Reporting

A few years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to get Henry Anderson and Ernest Raymond in a room together, let alone sharing a microphone. But after a joint meeting with the Ministry of Agriculture that produced concrete plans to move the industry forward, and a jointly written cordial press release, there was a shared spirit of camaraderie as the industry looks to put its recent woes behind it.

 

Ernest Raymond, Chairman, Belize Citrus Mutual

Ernest Raymond

“The meeting with the Minister was an attempt at determining where the industry is at the moment; where we want to go in terms of production; and more importantly, what are the mechanisms that should be put in place to make sure that there is increased production, that there is greater collaboration not only among the Associations but as well among all stakeholders; and very importantly, the kind of financing that would be needed to move the industry forward. So it was a moment to sit down with the Minister, do some reflection, but also to look forward. As a matter of fact, we did end by agreeing that all stakeholders need to sit down and develop something of a strategic plan for the citrus industry that which would identify what the issues are, certainly; but also to list those actions that needs to be taken, and what requirements those actions will need to move the industry forward and make it more productive.”

 

This year’s crop, besieged last August by Hurricane Earl, took a step back, but Henry Anderson found the bright side – a rebound is on the way.

 

Henry Anderson

Henry Anderson, C.E.O., Citrus Growers Association

“Last year we did three-point-two four million boxes of oranges; this year we did three point two million boxes of oranges and we lost about five hundred and sixty-nine thousand boxes to Hurricane Earl; so had we not had the hurricane, we would have seen a trend up in the orange production. That’s significant, because when you are dealing with HLB, it takes a lot of work; and we think what we have achieved is actually the containment of the downward trend. If you look at Florida over the same time period, last year Florida did eighty-one million boxes; this year they are expecting to do around sixty-eight-point-five, so they have a big declining trend where we have come like this (gestures). We have about two thousand acres of young groves that are three years old now, that will be having production coming into the industry for the coming crop year, so we are guardedly optimistic that we should be seeing the up-trend in the orange production. In the case of grapefruit, we had about four hundred acres of grapefruit taken out – and some was put into lime and coconuts, some is being replanted – so, grapefruit has gone from three hundred eighty-seven thousand boxes last year to one hundred eighty-seven [thousand] this year. A big chunk of that is again Hurricane Earl which knocked off about two hundred thousand boxes of grapefruit; as it came in August the grapefruit were bigger and they couldn’t stay on the tree. Although it’s a decline, when you deconstruct the figures there is room for optimism going forward, knowing that new trees are coming into production.”

The associations and the Ministry are to work together to resolve labour issues and tackle the ever-present HLB or Citrus Greening disease problem. This involves controlling the Asian Citrus Psyllid that affects trees, planting only certified citrus trees and removing affected trees and implementing a robust nutrition program. On the Government side, BAHA will address eliminating illegal nurseries and plants and attracting additional capital. On that front, there is good news from the Social Security Board, while Citrus Products of Belize Limited was able to avoid the financial woes that bedeviled it in the 2015-2016 crop year.

 

Henry Anderson

“This year there was no issues with growers getting their payments, actually, because the Board worked diligently to ensure that all of the financing was arranged before time. There were some hiccups – not this past crop year, but the one before – that were outside of CPBL’s control, really, but a lot of work was put in to ensure that everything was lined up and all parties – Heritage Bank, the Central Bank – everybody understand the importance of the industry and ensured that the finance was put there. The S.S.B. Board has approved sixteen point nine million dollars financing to the industry – six point nine million of that is directly for CPBL and the other ten millions is for growers to directly borrow from S.S.B. – seven point four million for the planting of citrus, and two point six million for the planting of MB2 pineapples because the industry is looking to complement citrus. While that’s the mainstay and we will grow that back to the eight to ten million boxes over the next decade, we also have opportunities where CPBL right now does MB2 pineapples – it processes MB2 pineapples at the CCB plant. Since all the citrus production has moved to the BFP plant, you have the CCB plant there that you can scale up.”

And what about the land? To get five million trees planted in five years as has been agreed to, there will either have to be more land available – or more trees on each property.

Ernest Raymond

“Way back in 2010 it was estimated that there were forty-five thousand acres of land in production with citrus, but of course of those forty-five thousand acres, probably their production has been less than what is desired. I think right now we are producing below two hundred thousand boxes of fruit per acre; that is something that needs to be increased drastically. We also need to increase the production acreage as such; and not just the production acreage but also practicing how many trees we plant per acre. More and more, it is believed that we need to increase the number of trees or plants per acre, so that our production can go up.”

 

In all, both men see a bright future ahead for the industry once it buckles down and works hard.

 

Ernest Raymond

“That’s what it’s all about, making sure that all stakeholders along with the Ministry of Agriculture, works toward improving the industry.”

 

Henry Anderson

“Citrus prices are the highest they have ever been – the price for oranges right now is two dollars fifty-four cents or two dollars fifty-five cents per pound solid; if you convert that to box that’s about fifteen-forty-seven, that is the highest price; grapefruit is a little over ten dollars per box the second highest price so we have good prices. You have access to markets as we do. You have a case now where Social Security has made some financing available and we need to look at how we can attract more financing, so it’s all coming together. What we want everybody to understand is that the growers are working together and the industry is looking to move forward. The conversation has been ongoing and it is good now to have the leadership at the Ministry to really bring everybody together – not in the sense that everybody are not around the same table, but in the sense that if Belize – our industry is massive in terms of our economy, but we are just a speck on the wall internationally. So we need to collaborate together and we need to have a Ministry or a Government that is able to work with us to get out there.”

Aaron Humes reporting for News Five.

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Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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