J. Brantley Schirard Sr.
– Through drought, disease and freeze, a Florida citrus champion
No one would be surprised if Brantley Schirard actually bleeds Florida citrus juice. His father, John, was a grower and co-founder of the Patrick Fruit Co. packinghouse in Sanford during the 1940s. Schirard started working in the groves before he started high school. He knew this would be his way of life even then.
Schirard graduated in 1961 with a degree in citrus management and production and a minor in etymology from the University of Florida (also spending some time as a Gator football player). He took a position as production manager at DiGiorgio Fruit Corp., then one of the largest citrus operations in the Indian River District with about 5,000 acres of fruit trees, a concentrate plant and fresh fruit packing operation.
DiGiorgio was bought out by Bernard Egan, for whom Schirard continued to work until hired by Blue Goose Growers. He ran that company’s Florida division for about 15 years until Dole bought the business. Schirard rose to become president of Dole Foods’ Florida Citrus Division before striking out on his own in the mid-1980s.
“That was when I formed Schirard Citrus and SunBrite Citrus Packing for the fresh fruit packinghouse operation. I built a new packinghouse in Fort Pierce, and we managed well over 5,000 to 6,000 acres of groves – not only my own, but partners of mine from the Blue Goose days.”
In the 1990s, he began transferring responsibilities to his children, Brant, Lori and Bryan. Today, Brant is division manager for Blue Goose Growers and has served as president of Southern Harvesting and Schirard Citrus. He also was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to the Board of Regents of Indian River State College and is a vice president of the Florida Farm Bureau. Brant is an alumnus of the Wedgworth Leadership Institute. Lori runs a successful gift fruit fundraising business, River Brite Citrus Sales, and is a former Miss Florida Citrus. Bryan passed away in 2006 at the age of 39. He had been vice president of Sun-Brite Citrus Packing.
Schirard has a reputation as a formidable industry leader. “I was on the (Florida) Citrus Commission in the ‘90s,” he said. “Back in the ‘80s I was president of Florida Citrus Mutual and on that board for 12 years. And I also was president of the Florida Citrus Production Managers Association.” In addition, Schirard served for decades on the board of the Indian River Citrus League including terms as president and chairman. The League recently honored him with its Legend of the River Award. He also served on FFVA’s labor committee and as an alternate board member in the 1980s. He was appointed to the Florida Citrus Commission in 1993 and served till 2000. “It was for two terms. I was the international marketing director for the commission and traveled all over China and so many other places,” he said.
Adding to his packed travel schedule were trips selling the company’s fruit throughout Europe and Japan. “I must have sold millions of cartons to Japan in my career.”
Schirard was named to the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame this year. He also remains active in civic activities over the years and is an accomplished pilot.
We’re positive thinkers. This industry has tremendous people. We’re all working and pouring money into it. We’re living with greening now and hoping for a solution in the not-too-distant future.” – J. Brantley Schirard, Sr.
Between freezes and disease, the Florida citrus industry is going through monumental changes. Schirard has seen the bright times and the down times, and he remains optimistic in spite of threats as serious as citrus greening disease. “The industry’s just challenged to the core,” he said. “I grew up in the industry and watched it expand till there were 850,000 acres of citrus in the state. Now we’re back down to 500,000 or so and some of that’s not even economical. Right now, 50 percent or better of your packinghouses are shut down, and concentrate plants are fighting for their lives to get the volume of fruit to operate correctly. Coca Cola-Minute Maid has partnered with Peace River Growers to put in 25,000 new acres of citrus to develop enough fruit to keep these multimillion-dollar concentrate plants running. The fresh fruit operations are fighting the same problems.”
The threat to the industry, Schirard says, is not knowing when to plant new trees and reinvest the way it was done in the 1970s and ’80s, “Because we don’t know if we’re going to have a viable grove or not. Citrus greening is widespread. They’re starting to pick up more problems in Texas and finding more of the psyllids that transmit the bacteria in California. So it’s a serious issue – far greater than canker or insects or probably any other disease we’ve ever experienced in the state,” he said.
But Schirard, without reservation, holds fast to his faith in the industry. “We’re positive thinkers. This industry has tremendous people. We’re all working and pouring money into it. We’re living with greening now and hoping for a solution in the not-too-distant future.”
He believes future generations will be growing Florida oranges and grapefruit – but they have to pay attention. “This is still a big industry. The profitability is what’s in question, though. But I think that no young person, because of this threat, should give up. Just get a good education, learn from everyone and every opportunity, and then you’ll be able to make solid decisions based on that knowledge.
“I’m afraid that agriculture with all of its challenges – labor, diseases, all of it – paints a challenging picture. But don’t give up on agriculture because the minute we do in this country, we’re dead. Agriculture is the backbone of the United States of America,” Schirard said. “We feed the world. There is a future there and the best thing for younger industry members is to get an education and be smart. Don’t avoid agriculture.”
Learn more about J. Brantley Schirard by viewing the Citrus Hall of Fame presentation.