Florida Citrus Mutual's Michael Sparks to retire, remains optimistic about industry's future

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Florida Citrus Mutual Executive Vice President/CEO Michael W. Sparks.
Florida Citrus Mutual Executive Vice President/CEO Michael W. Sparks.

LAKELAND – Retiring Florida Citrus Mutual’s executive Michael Sparks said he will leave his post with an optimistic outlook for the future of citrus in Florida following a nearly 45-year career supporting growers.

The last 15 years Sparks has worked for Florida Citrus Mutual, the state’s largest grower organization, with a tenure that coincided with the battle growers in the state’s $8 billion industry have waged against citrus greening.

Citing new advances in the fight against the disease and the economic benefits of the industry, the Citrus Hall of Famer said, “It’s still critical, it’s down, but not out.”

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Sparks' replacement was decided on Monday by the Bartow-based Citrus Mutual board of directors. They named Mathew “Matt” Joyner to take over as the organization’s executive vice president and CEO on April 1.

“Matt brings a unique perspective and skillset to Florida Citrus Mutual having worked side-by-side with both Legislators in the Halls of Congress and growers in the groves of Florida,” said Florida Citrus Mutual President Glenn Beck in a press release. “We’re excited and encouraged for the future with him at the helm.”

A seventh-generation Floridian, Joyner earned a bachelor’s in business administration from the University of South Florida, the release stated. He worked in the financial services industry before joining the staff of then-U.S. Representative Adam Putnam in 2001, where he served in a variety of capacities including Chief of Staff.

In 2011 Joyner joined the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services as federal affairs director and later became deputy chief of staff. In 2018, he was named director of government relations for Florida Citrus Mutual, his current position.

Joyner will have a tough road ahead of him as the USDA citrus forecast for 2020-21 projected production of 47 million boxes of Florida Oranges and 3.8 million boxes of Florida Grapefruit. The forecast was down 11% from last season.

Industry forecast: USDA citrus forecast predicts 11% fewer Florida oranges and 8% fewer grapefruits this season

The peak of citrus production was 244 million boxes during the 1997-98 season.

A report in the online publication "Citrus Industry" cited Bill Curtis, agricultural statistics administrator with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, as saying, “the fruit per tree is the lowest on record for both Florida non-Valencias and Valencias. The records date back to the 1964-65 crop. In addition, he said that both types of orange trees this season have smaller fruit size than average.”

Citrus greening or HLB is a bacterial disease spread by an insect, the Asian citrus psyllid. The disease reduces fruit size, increases fruit drop and negatively impacts the quality of the harvest, including the shape and taste of the fruit.

The disease reached Florida in 2005 and within three yearshad spread to the majority of citrus farms.

Earlier this year, Sparks, age 69, had submitted a letter to the Florida Citrus Mutual board stating that he intended to retire by the end of the group’s fiscal year ending June 30. He will stay on until then “to ensure a smooth transition of leadership,” the release stated.

Sparks, an Apollo Beach resident, said he plans to fish – every day possible, volunteer with the Moffett Cancer Center and spend more time with family in retirement, he said in a phone interview Wednesday.

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“Mike Sparks has led us through some of the toughest times this industry has ever seen,” said Florida Citrus Mutual past-president Tom Mitchell in the press release. “Florida Citrus Mutual and the Florida citrus industry will be forever grateful for his service and leadership.”

The Citrus Hall of Fame’s website documented his nearly 30 years with the Florida Department of Citrus prior to joining Citrus Mutual and last 15 years at Florida Citrus Mutual.

The 1974 graduate of University of South Florida soon used his accounting degree as an auditor general for the state of Florida where he conducted field audits of several county and state agencies - one of which was the Florida Department of Citrus.

He eventually went to work for the citrus agency in 1979 as their assistant comptroller, starting his more than four decades in the industry.

“Working for the Citrus Commission, with its big budgets, tax collections, ad agencies, many employees and regulatory responsibilities — was a dream job for a young man who enjoyed the detail of revenue collections, checking contract deliverables and measuring program performance,” according to the Citrus Hall of Fame website.

Serving under then-Governor Bob Graham, he obtained a master’s degree in Public Administration and “spent 29 years working his way up the management ladder serving in numerous positions, including chief financial officer, director of administration, deputy executive director and interim executive director under six different executive directors and 87 Florida Citrus Commissioners,” the website stated.

More: Citrus consultant Elizabeth Steger forecasts Florida orange crop to fall by 1.5%

In a phone interview Wednesday, Sparks said the focus for the future of citrus must be combatting citrus greening and the new research through government funded programs, such as the research at the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Services will be vitally important to those efforts.

“The fact of the matter is we have more work to do,” he said in the battle against pests and diseases threatening the industry. “We hope we have bottomed out.”

Existing citrus trees need to be more productive, and more trees need to be in the ground because rural areas count on the economic benefits of the citrus groves, he said.

One of many accomplishments he was proud of was the Citrus Research and Field Trial Foundation Inc., which is in its second year of operation. The CRAFT program brings researchers out of the laboratory and into the citrus groves in order to share economically feasible production management practices in the HLB era.

He also noted the last two farm bills passed by Congress have contained multi-million-dollar allocations for research.

Founded in 1948, the Florida Citrus Mutual represents nearly 2,500 growers in an industry that employs about 46,000 and covers 400,000 acres.

Paul Nutcher covers business and industry for The Ledger. He can be reached at pnutcher@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Florida Citrus Mutual's Michael Sparks to retire

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