FT. MYERS, Fla. -- Commercial citrus growers in Southwest Florida are learning a thing or two about "sticky messages."
These aren't O.J.-splashed notes, but instead messages about the value and needs of agribusiness that will stick in the minds of the public and policymakers.
"Words matter," said Tracy Irani. She directs the University of Florida's Center for Public Issues Education in Agriculture, commonly called the PIE Center.
Take the phrase "best management practices," which growers often refer to as BMPs. To the growers, that means smart use of water, chemicals and other resources, to provide a marketable product that is both cost-effective and respectful of the environment.
However, PIE Center research indicates that when nonfarmers hear the phrase, "they think we are just like the Wall Street fat cats that took us down a bad financial path," Irani said.
On the other hand, the public grasps and responds favorably to this message: "Without agriculture, we'd be naked and hungry."
Irani was featured speaker at Gulf Citrus Growers' 26th annual membership meeting Wednesday in LaBelle. The association includes commercial growers in Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties, as well as businesspeople in allied fields.
Gulf Citrus growers invited the communications expert to talk as part of a regional effort that's in its infancy, said Ron Hamel, association vice president and general manager. The goal: to get all forms of agribusiness more adept at talking about their worth to the community, and what they need to survive.
Getting out accurate messages that will stick is important. And, a sustainable citrus industry should matter to all Southwest Floridians, said Norm Todd, a LaBelle resident and grower. Not only do farms and groves provide green space, groundwater recharge areas and wildlife habitat, they are economic engines.
Estimates credit the region's agribusinesses with $1 billion yearly in sales by farmers and ranchers alone.
The citrus industry never lacks for challenges; however, some things are working in its favor.
For one, production statewide is down since a now-defunct canker eradication program took out about 300,000 acres of trees. "Our supply and demand have equalized. That helps prices," Todd said.
Citrus greening, a disease that can severely weaken trees and produce misshapen, inedible fruit, remains the biggest cloud on growers' horizons. However, Todd sees more grower optimism that it can be controlled. Techniques include tree fertilizing and spraying to kill the Asian citrus psyllid, a host insect primarily responsible for spreading the greening bacteria.
Since 2006, the bacterial disease citrus greening has cost Florida's economy $3.63 billion in lost revenue and 6,611 jobs, according to the University of Florida.
Citrus researchers believe genetic modification will be the best solution. But even if a breakthrough occurs, growers may wait several years for regulatory approval before the new technology becomes available in groves, Todd noted.
Todd hopes some of the "sticky messages" nonfarmers will get in the future will note that citrus groves "are good homes for a lot of wildlife," and that farmers are trying to become better world citizens.
"We've been sloppy in the past, but sloppy doesn't work anymore," Todd said. "We've got to preserve our planet."
Ft. Myers News Press, Laura Ruane