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Citrus canker puts family business to its biggest test

Until two weeks ago, Ed Smoak felt God had protected his family farm and ranch from some of the most damaging crises of the citrus industry. The Highlands County citrus farmer, who with his brother, runs a 350-acre grove and a 10,000-acre ranch, has avoided most of the devastation from the freezes of the 1980s. And five years ago, when 20-million acres of citrus groves were destroyed because of canker suspicions, the Smoak groves were relatively untouched.

Canker, a virulent disease, mars plants and fruit but is harmless to humans. Citrus growers fear it because they can't sell the fruit and usually must destroy the trees and others near those that are infected.

Two weeks ago a production manager discovered citrus canker on some 18-month-old trees in several parts of a 400-acre grove the Smoaks own. Federal and state investigators are examining now whether a former canker inspector in 1985 indirectly infected the Smoak grove by infecting the trees at the inspector's home next door. Friday, an industry advisory group urged state and federal authorities to impose a quarantine and fruit shipping restrictions around the grove.

Now Ed Smoak is finding his faith in God tested.

"He has dealt us a lot of good hands, and this one is not so good," Smoak said Friday. "But I'm sure he will allow us to do well and to play it through. We'll come through all right."

Smoak said he is hoping the canker is limited to the 400-acre grove. For now he plans to pull up and burn about 40,000 of the young trees, but he continues to argue with himself about whether he should just pull up the whole grove, all 70,000 trees.

"I just hope it's limited to that grove. If not, it's going to mean megabucks," Smoak said.

If the grove is lost he could probably lose $2-million to $3-million in future revenues and current costs.

He had invested $3-million in the grove when he bought it and planted it.

"We may decide to pull up the whole grove, just pull our hand out of the bucket and wipe it off," Smoak said.

"If I find it all over the place, it's gone. We don't want to try to live under a cloud of agony."

It is still unclear whether the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will be legally liable to remunerate the Smoaks, because investigators haven't completed their work, state officials said.

"I've not discussed it with the state," Smoak said. "If there is any money on the table, I'd like to have it. But I'm not going to choke anybody over it."

The canker represents the first major setback for the conservative farming and ranching business John Smoak founded in the early 1930s. Back then, John Smoak was a barber who had only finished fourth grade and couldn't read.

As Ed Smoak tells it, one day his father did a poor job cutting a steady customer's hair. The client complained and asked John Smoak what was occupying his mind.

"I'm thinking about the impossible," John Smoak said, explaining that he knew of a 10-acre grove for sale that he wished he could afford to buy.

The customer replied, "Why, a lot of things are impractical, but few things are impossible."

The customer loaned John Smoak the money, and the 10 acres in Lake Placid became the foundation for a steadily growing citrus business. Every year Smoak, and later his two sons, would reinvest profits. In the 1960s the family bought a ranch to breed cattle.

John Smoak died in 1975, but his sons, having been "born in citrus" continue to operate the businesses, Ed Smoak said.

Ed Smoak earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture from the University of Florida and co-manages the citrus operation with his brother John. The younger John Smoak also heads the cattle ranch.

Both enterprises employ 50 people year-round and 300 harvesters during the citrus season.

The Smoak brothers are visibly active in various business and regulatory groups related to agriculture. Ed Smoak, who has been on the Citrus Commission since 1983, is also a director of Barnett Bank of Highlands County.

Ed Smoak lists his hobbies as hunting, flying and his wife. He has two sons.

The family business' habit of using the proceeds to pay off debt and to build reserves has taken it through the rough seasons, Smoak said. That financial conservatism will sustain it now, he said.

"We've been saving for a rainy day; well, it's pretty cloudy now," he said.