Vic Story, Jr., of Lake Wales, Fla., is a citrus leader during a time the industry faces a threatening bacterial disease called citrus greening.
Story is fighting back by spraying psyllid insects that spread the disease, by replanting infected groves and by planting alternative crops such as peaches. This year, he’s increasing his citrus plantings by 22% and doubling his plantings of peaches.
As a result of his success as a citrus grower, Story has been selected as the 2015 Florida winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Story joins nine other state winners as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced Tuesday, Oct. 20 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
The Story Companies own about 2,000 acres, and manage citrus production on another 5,000 acres. Most groves are planted to Valencia or Hamlin oranges yielding 400 boxes of fruit per acre. His other citrus includes Pineapple, Navel and Murcott oranges, white and red or pink grapefruit, Orlando tangelos and Sunburst tangerines.
During the early 1990’s, he needed additional income. So he started a caretaking company, providing citrus production practices to other grove owners. This company has grown and now has 25 employees.
He recently was hired to fertilize 490 acres. Story says variable rate application will save this grove owner 20% on fertilizer costs.
He bases fertilizer applications on extensive soil and plant tissue sampling. His irrigation has been converted from overhead sprinklers to water-conserving microjet sprinklers placed under the trees. Water with a high pH can harm tree roots, so Story adds urea and sulfuric acid to irrigation water. This gives the trees a healthier appearance.
In past years, Story followed a set routine of production practices with little variation in the amount of fertilizer or herbicides. He says, “Citrus growers must now be real farmers due to greening and other diseases. We raise citrus in five counties, and in blocks of five to 20 acres. You can no longer treat each block the same.”
Greening is serious, and many believe greening will doom citrus production in Florida. Story disagrees. He’s planting new citrus groves at a time others are pushing up their trees and converting their land to other uses.
Until last year, he raised grass sod and beef cattle. He liquidated these enterprises to plant this land to his new citrus groves.
Citrus plantings in Hardee County symbolize his approach. There, he has an established grove, a young grove and a grove just now being planted.
A farmer for 50 years, Story began farming with his dad after attending the University of Florida and serving in the Army Reserves. He and his father specialized in buying depressed groves and turning them into productive groves.
Over the years, he has increased citrus planting density. Story says many new groves have about 300 trees per acre, while older groves were planted at 150 trees per acre.
He markets processed citrus as premium fruit juice. He uses multi-year contracts with floor prices and clauses that allow for higher prices when industry average prices rise. He sells peaches through an established cooperative.
Story helped develop the Sun Lion fresh fruit brand and sells this citrus to the Whole Foods grocery chain. He hopes to expand this label by producing juice and by selling to other grocery stores.
Peaches are a new crop in Central Florida. Story planted his peaches on small blocks where greening rendered citrus unprofitable. His peaches are University of Florida-developed varieties that require low chill hours.
By partnering with another company, Story is able to use H-2A foreign guest workers to harvest his crops.
He also participates in an incentive program from the Florida’s Natural cooperative. It offers loans to growers planting new citrus trees. “Your trees are your most important asset,” says Story. “Keep your trees productive as long as you can.”
Greening is a challenge, but Story views it as another in a long list of citrus threats such citrus canker, tristeza virus and the like. He believes greening can be managed if not completely controlled.
He’s using new rootstocks that better withstand the disease. Changing fertilizer practices, spraying for psyllids and paying attention to water quality will all help, according to Story.
New varieties for scions or fruiting branches may play a part. He hopes to see new psyllid controls and controls for the greening bacteria in existing trees. Over time, he believes growers will prefer earlier maturing Valencias over Hamlins that proved vulnerable to greening.
“The future of citrus in Florida is bright,” he says, “I want The Story Companies well-positioned to take advantage when the brighter day arrives. You can’t be a farmer without hope.”
Story received the Citrus Achievement Award from Florida Grower magazine. He supports Our Children’s Academy, a charter school for autistic children. He has been president of Polk County Farm Bureau and was on the Polk County board of the USDA-Farm Service Agency. He has been a member of the Polk County Charter Review Committee and is a former mayor of Lake Wales. He has also been active in local Little League, YMCA, parent-teacher organizations and in First Presbyterian Church.
He has been vice chair of the Florida Citrus Commission, and is a past president of Florida Citrus Mutual. He serves on the boards of the Florida Polytechnic University Foundation and the Florida FFA Foundation. He has been a member of the USDA Citrus Disease Research and Development Advisory Committee. He also chairs the state and Federal political action committees of Florida Citrus Mutual.
He and his wife Ann have been married 43 years. They have five children, sons Matt, Kyle and Jeffery, daughters Michelle and Jennifer, 12 grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Vic says Ann provides good council on major decisions. “She has good instincts that I appreciate and trust,” he says.
Two of their sons work in the family business. Kyle focuses on planning and Matt is production manager. Two older grandsons have also worked for the farming business. Two key employees include production supervisor Simon Torres and harvesting manager Phil Sappington.
Vic is turning over more of the management to Matt and Kyle. “My sons manage effectively, and their ideas have already made a positive impact,” says Story. He has planned for the succession of the business to the next generation, while allowing non-farming children and grandchildren to share in the profits.
Joshua Craft with Florida Farm Bureau is state coordinator of the Farmer of the Year award. Story was nominated for the honor by Jason Davison, district field representative with Florida Farm Bureau. Davison admires how Story expanded citrus from the first 100 acres his father established, and how Story is increasing tree density.
As the Florida state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Story will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative, the choice of either $1,000 in cottonseed or a $500 donation to a designated charity from PhytoGen, and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash award that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative, the choice of either another $1,000 in cottonseed or a second $500 donation to a designated charity from PhytoGen, and a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 26th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed more than $1 million in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from Florida include: Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1990; Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1991; Wayne Wiggins of Plant City, 1992; Leroy Baldwin of Ocala, 1993; Billy Long of Apopka, 1994; Richard Barber of Ocala, 1995; Al Bellotto of Lakeland, 1996; Rex Clonts of Apopka, 1997; John Hoblick of DeLeon Springs, 1998; Doug Holmberg of Valrico, 1999; Damon Deas of Jennings, 2000; Gene Batson of Mount Dora, 2001; William Putnam of Alturas, 2002; Sonny Williamson of Okeechobee, 2003; Dale Sauls of Anthony, 2004; Louis “Red” Larson of Okeechobee, 2005; Damon Deas of Jennings, 2006; Alto “Bud” Adams of Ft. Pierce, 2007; Randy Strode of Longwood, 2008; Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, 2009; John Hundley of North Palm Beach, 2010; Ron St. John of Trenton, 2011; Dale McClellan of Thonotosassa, 2012; John Scott Long of Palm City, 2013; and C. Dennis Carlton of Tampa, 2014.
Florida has had seven overall winners: Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1991; Leroy Baldwin of Ocala, 1993; Rex Clonts of Apopka, 1997; Doug Holmberg of Valrico, 1999; Louis “Red” Larson of Okeechobee, 2005; Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, 2009; and Dale McClellan of Thonotosassa, 2012.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit Story’s farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 10-14. The judges for this year are John Woodruff, retired University of Georgia Extension agronomist from Tifton, Ga., who specialized in soybeans for many years; Clark Garland, longtime University of Tennessee Extension ag economist of Maryville, Tenn.; and farmer Thomas Porter, Jr., of Concord, N.C., who was the overall winner in 2011.