Florida citrus industry calls on new Marvel superhero for help

Captain Citrus is about to get a million-dollar makeover.
Captain Citrus is about to get a million-dollar makeover.
Published June 27 2014
Updated June 27 2014

Florida's OJ industry is under attack from all sides. It's in desperate need of a superhero. So it has called on experts to create one.

The Florida Department of Citrus wants to revamp its own cartoon character — a rotund "Captain Citrus" from Planet Orange — by paying about $1 million to Marvel Comics to conjure up a more compelling superhero and orange juice salesman.

Ever heard of the current Captain Citrus? Me neither. The department created him just three years ago to get the message of OJ nutrition into the classroom.

Time for Plan B.

Department spokesman David Steele said one goal of the new superhero is to create a more "fit" representation of Florida citrus. "The prior manifestation of Captain Citrus was shaped like a bowling ball. The new one will be buff," Steele says. Another objective is to associate the freshened citrus brand with the dynamic energy associated with Marvel's family of superheroes.

Marvel, owned by Walt Disney Corp., is best known for such popular comic book heroes as Spider-Man and the X-Men. The new Captain Citrus will appear this fall in a custom Marvel comic with the Avengers.

Steele says the partnership with Marvel will include three digital comic books, a Marvel-produced animated trailer and a contest offering "one of our fans the opportunity for a cameo in a Marvel comic."

The overhauled captain is also expected to play a role in the department's new marketing campaign unveiled this month at the state's annual citrus industry conference held in Bonita Springs. The campaign tag line: "There's Amazing Inside."

But is it amazing enough?

One of the biggest hurdles for citrus is declining U.S. demand. Americans are simply drinking less orange juice.

This is not a new trend.

U.S. demand for orange juice peaked in 1998, with annual per capita consumption close to 6 gallons. Now it's closer to 3.5 gallons.

Anecdotally, I see the decline in our grocery stores. Orange juice is pricey. And OJ sits in a cooler surrounded by a growing number of fruity drinks from pomegranate to acai. Flavored water options are also proliferating, many containing little or no sugar.

The stigma of high sugar content in orange juice is clearly on the minds of many Americans trying to choose healthy consumption choices at reasonable prices. Citrus folks say OJ has unfairly gotten a bad rap in the media.

One bright spot for Florida is South Korea's growing love affair with orange juice. It imported 13.2 million gallons of U.S. orange juice this year through April, a pace well ahead of the 16.5 million gallons in all of 2013 and 3 million gallons in 2011. In 2014, South Korea is second only to Canada in U.S. orange juice sales.

That's still not much of a salve for Florida's OJ woes.

Citrus greening disease still has no cure and continues to ravage the state's $9 billion citrus industry. Fruit from a diseased tree is bitter, misshapen and inedible. In 2012, an analysis estimated the disease had cost growers $4.6 billion and the loss of about 8,000 jobs.

This month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it will distribute more than $30 million in grants to researchers to find ways, probably in the form of a bactericide, to combat a disease many describe as similar to cancer. Overall, the recently passed farm bill commits $25 million a year for five years for citrus greening research.

"We're in the fourth quarter. We're not winning," Fort Pierce grower and Citrus Research and Development Foundation board president Tom Jenkins warned at the recent industry conference, according to the Lakeland Ledger. "A sober assessment would say we're failing and losing."

Citrus trees have also become less productive, trimming overall output even as the number of citrus groves are shrinking. Foreign competition is rising. And production costs, mainly spraying, have quadrupled per acre to $2,000, while the extra expense of greenhouse-grown citrus seedlings are 10 times what they used to be.

Every time I write about the orange juice industry, things seem to be getting worse.

This new Marvel character better be one heck of a citrus superhero. But even he can't do it alone.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @VentureTampaBay.