Lester Helped Steer Industry Through Many Challenges
Lakeland Ledger – January 28, 2012
LAKELAND | Battling disease and citrus freezes, competing with imported orange juice, fights over the effectiveness of orange juice advertising and the growers’ taxes that support it — such issues that pass for Florida citrus news these days look like the same old story to Bernie Lester.
Lester, 73, recalled he faced those challenges and more through his 19-year career as an economist at the Florida Department of Citrus, including his last years from 1979 to 1986 at executive director, the chief executive. He left to become an executive at Alico Inc., one of the state’s largest growers, and served on its board until in February 2005.
The department is a 77-year-old state agency charged with promoting Florida citrus products, and orange juice has been its biggest marketing effort since the 1950s.
The Florida citrus industry is currently dealing with declining OJ sales attributed in large part to historically high retail prices. It faced the same scenario following a decade of major citrus freezes during the 1980s, including tree and crop-destroying freezes in December 1983 and January 1985.
As today, the Florida citrus industry roiled in debate over imported OJ, mainly from its chief competitor, Brazil, the world’s largest orange grower and OJ processor, Lester said.
At the time, the divisive issue was whether Florida juice processors should rely on Brazilian imports, he said. Some argued for waiting out a multi-year supply shortage and risk shrinking the domestic OJ market until Florida growers could recover.
“Our position and what became the industry’s dominant position is we did need imports,” Lester said.
Lester declined to take all the credit for steering the industry through such challenges.
“I think it was the whole group; I thought we had an excellent staff,” he said. “We confronted the challenges we had and achieved as much success as possible.”