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Fritz Roka


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Fritz Roka
Series Title:
Florida citrus oral history project
Physical Description:
1 sound file (22 min.) : digital, MPEG4 file + ;
Roka, Fritz Michael, 1955-
Mansfield, Bill
University of South Florida Libraries -- Florida Studies Center. -- Oral History Program
University of South Florida -- Tampa Library
University of South Florida -- Globalization Research Center
University of South Florida Tampa Library
Place of Publication:
Tampa, Fla
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Citrus fruit industry -- Florida   ( lcsh )
Citrus fruits -- Harvesting   ( lcsh )
Free enterprise -- Florida   ( lcsh )
Oral history   ( local )
Online audio   ( local )
Oral history.   ( local )
Online audio.   ( local )
interview   ( marcgt )


The interview focuses on mechanical harvesters and displaced labor caused by mechanical harvesting. Discussion included the importance of Florida's citrus industry in Florida's culture and history.
Interview conducted June 22, 2005, in Immokalee, Fla.
System Details:
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
Statement of Responsibility:
interviewed by William Mansfield.
General Note:
Beginning of interview only as notes in transcript.

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University of South Florida Library
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University of South Florida
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
aleph - 024871428
oclc - 64030217
usfldc doi - C56-00018
usfldc handle - c56.18
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C O P Y R I G H T N O T I C E T h i s O r a l H i s t o r y i s c o p y r i g h t e d b y t h e U n i v e r s i t y o f S o u t h F l o r i d a L i b r a r i e s O r a l H i s t o r y P r o g r a m o n b e h a l f o f t h e B o a r d o f T r u s t e e s o f t h e U n i v e r s i t y o f S o u t h F l o r i d a C o p y r i g h t 2 0 0 7 U n i v e r s i t y o f S o u t h F l o r i d a A l l r i g h t s r e s e r v e d T h i s o r a l h i s t o r y m a y b e u s e d f o r r e s e a r c h i n s t r u c t i o n a n d p r i v a t e s t u d y u n d e r t h e p r o v i s i o n s o f t h e F a i r U s e F a i r U s e i s a p r o v i s i o n o f t h e U n i t e d S t a t e s C o p y r i g h t L a w ( U n i t e d S t a t e s C o d e T i t l e 1 7 s e c t i o n 1 0 7 ) w h i c h a l l o w s l i m i t e d u s e o f c o p y r i g h t e d m a t e r i a l s u n d e r c e r t a i n c o n d i t i o n s F a i r U s e l i m i t s t h e a m o u n t o f m a t e r i a l t h a t m a y b e u s e d F o r a l l o t h e r p e r m i s s i o n s a n d r e q u e s t s c o n t a c t t h e U N I V E R S I T Y O F S O U T H F L O R I D A L I B R A R I E S O R A L H I S T O R Y P R O G R A M a t t h e U n i v e r s i t y o f S o u t h F l o r i d a 4 2 0 2 E F o w l e r A v e n u e L I B 1 2 2 T a m p a F L 3 3 6 2 0


Citrus Oral History Project Globalization Research Center University of South Florida Notes from interview with Dr. Fritz Roka 6 22 05 [Note: A thunderstorm came up during the interview and a power outage cut off the disc recorder erasing the first half of the interview. This portion of the interview is base upon the interviewers notes and recollections of the interview.] Fritz Roka was born in Washington DC on July 6, 1955. Grew up in Maryland suburbs, out side of Washington, DC. He attended the University of Maryland and earned a BS and an MS in agricultural economics. He received his PHD in agricultural economics at NCSU, in Raleigh, NC. He came to Florida in 1995 to work on issues of agricultural labor. His work with mechanical harvesting of citrus began in 1999 (?) Roka looked at the impact of mechanical harvesting on agricultura l labor. The money to finance mechanical harvesting has come from Dept. of Citrus loans, and private investment. Development for the canopy shaker was financed by one of these loans. The trunk shaker has evolved from a machine developed to harvest nuts out in California. One man has devised a water cannon to harvest oranges, but it has yet to prove itself. Currently there are three mechanical harvesters, two different types of trunk shakers and a canopy shaker. As its name implies the trunk shakers lit erally shake the trunk of the tree. A mechanical arm grasps the tree trunk and the shaking motion causes the fruit to drop to the ground. One of the trunk shakers uses a catch basin surrounding the base of the tree to collect the oranges. The other require s the oranges be gathered from the ground. The canopy shaker knocks the oranges off of the branches of the tree. Drums, with arms extending from them, whirl through the branches of orange trees, dislodging the fruit.


2 Again, a catch bin collects the falle n fruit. With the canopy shaker, two machines move down the rows, parallel to one another. A draw back to mechanical harvesting is that the trees need to be a uniform height and a uniform shape for the shakers to work most efficiently. The trees of a gro ve must have a uniform skirt height (the distance from the ground to the trees branches) for the catch basins. Canopy shakers work best with trees growing on level land with canopies of a consistent height and uniform shape. (Some people have described groves groomed for mechanical harvesting as looking more like hedges that like orange groves.) Harvesting machines can get stuck and bog down in the sandy soil of the Ridge region of Floridas orange country. The hard packed dirt and level land of sout h Florida makes this region ideal for mechanical harvesting. A grove thats been mechanically harvested looks pretty rough. Leaves and broken branches cover the ground. Growers, who take great pride in the orderly neat and orderly groves, react negatively to the torn and tattered appearance of a mechanically harvested grove. Additionally growers fear mechanical harvesting will damage their trees. How does the violent shaking of the trunk affect the productivity and life expectancy of the tree? Because m echanical harvesting has only been around 10 years research can not answer this question. Can the mechanical harvesters adapt to the tree as it grows? Can a trunk get too thick for the mechanical hand that shakes the trunk? Can canopy shakers adjust to trees of different heights as young shorter trees replace tall mature trees? Another challenge to developing the mechanical harvester is harvesting only the ripe fruit. Late in the season mature oranges share the tree with next years crop. How can the m echanical harvester dislodge the ripe oranges without taking fruitlettes for next years


3 crop? Researchers are working on a chemical that will cause the ripe fruit to release for harvesting while the fruitlettes remain on the tree. As it stands growers c an not use mechanical harvesters after early May. Use of mechanical harvesters can result in an over abundance of fruit, overwhelming processing plants leaving the excess oranges sitting in the parking lot and spoiling. Roka believes growers will accep t mechanical harvesting when it improves the labor productivity. Growers like the idea of mechanical harvesting because hand labor can be problematical. Paying a fair wage is almost out of the question. Other employment opportunities have made hand labor scarce. As the season wears on orange pickers charge more because the work is harder (hotter) and there is less fruit to pick the box and fewer oranges means less pay for w orkers ( fewer boxes.) Mechanical harvesting will work best for growers with a lot o f acreage. Its not economically feasible for growers with 100 acres groves to pay for a mechanical harvester to come into the grove set up, harvest the crop, take down and them move on. Its more cost effective to move the harvester into a large grove whe re there is more work to do. Roka thinks mechanical harvesters will not replace hand harvesting for another 15 or 20 years, but as use of the machines become more wide spread the cost of mechanical harvesting will go down. Mechanical harvesting is only good for oranges that will be processed (juiced). The force of mechanical harvesting mars the appearance of the oranges making them unless for the fresh fruit market.


4 Interview with: Dr. Fritz Roka Interviewed by: William Mansfield Location: Immokalee, Florida Date: June 23, 2005 Transcribed by: Wm. Mansfield Edited by: Wm. Mans field [Tape 1, Side A.] Bill Mansfield: This is disc number two if Bill Mansfields interview with Dr. Fritz Roka, on June 22, 2005, here in almost in Immokalee, outside of Immokalee. Fritz Roka: Almost in Immokalee. Mansfield: But you were talking a bout the um Im afraid my train of thought was Completely de railed. Roka: [laughs] Thats okay, fresh fruit. Mansfield: So we were talking about fresh fruit and the mechanical harvesting is out of the question for that? Roka: This particular kind of m echanical harvesting [is]. I guess we call this mass harvesting, mass harvesting and removal. Because of the bouncing and kind of violent nature of this harvesting, its not suitable for fresh fruit. The peel would be damaged and within a couple of days th e bruising that would show up on the peel, rendering that fruit unmarketable as a fresh piece of fruit in the grocery stores, whatever place up north they would ultimately end up. The mechanical harvesting option for fresh fruit is going to be robotics. There is work underway, looking at robotic technology that, in some ways will simulate hand picking. The pictures weve got now, the concepts that are being worked on are, basically, like three fingers grabbing the fruit, twisting it and pulling it off. So that


5 technology is already being explored as a viable way for the mechanically picking fresh fruit. Of course thats not just true for citrus but its true for peaches in the Sand Hills of North Carolina and pears in Georgia peaches in Georgia, I guess, a pples in Washington State and New York. So all the tree crops that have a fresh fruit component are going to be interested in this technology. Mansfield: What about, genetic engineering, or whatever. Somebody told me they were trying to develop a fruit th at would wouldnt cling to the tree as tightly? Roka: Okay. Theyre not talking about genetic engineering, there. I think what were working on is a product called abscission Thats a generic term for any chemical agent that enhances, or lessens the pull force attachment, by which this piece of fruit adheres to the tree, or to its individual stem. Abscission or abscission agents are going to be important in solving that last impediment we talked about, which is the fruitlettes, protecting the green fruitlettes for next year. And, going back, to be clear, when we talked about tree health and tree yield and I said that; with each year, were getting more and more confident that we dont impact the yield no next years crop Well, that changes once you cross over this threshold in the late season Valencias time frame. When those little green fruitlet t es start to size up when you shake a tree you will have a negative impact on next years crop. So thats a fact that weve shown before. We just recently d emonstrated that effect. So the issues of yield and no impact on yield only apply to the early crop, the midseason crop and even those Valencia s that are harvested between March and the first part of May. So once you get beyond May first, though, all bets are off. Now we do have to be concerned about impacting next years crop. So the strategy with abscission is that we do have a product, there is a known abscission agent that has shown to dramatically reduce the pull force, attachment. Its currently sta rting the registration process with the EPA, looking at all the residual toxicology issues, food safety issues and all of that environmental issue. So thats starting to undergo its testing now. But, what we also have to do is figure out away of incorporat ing this abscission agent with the existing machines.


6 Its a product that will be sprayed on the tree, maybe three to four days in advance of harvesting. The pull force will lesson and then we come in with the machines and fundamentally change, or signifi cantly reduce the amount of force that we apply to the tree, either trunk shaking or canopy shaking. We apply enough force that removes the loosened mature fruit but not so much force that it removes the green fruit. Mansfield: The abscission spray doesn t loosen the fruitlettes? Roka: No. Thats something, again, where there has been a lot of work, even going back to the 1960s, when they first started working with abscission agents. They show that it only affects the mature fruit. It does not have any i mpact on next years crop. So what we have is we have a known abscission agent that does work, that is selective in its ability to abscise fruit. And we have these systems that will remove fruit, trunk shaking or canopy shaking. The challenge is packaging the two elements together, the abscission [agent] and the machine, in such a way that we can remove the fruit this year and not affect next years crop. And also work with the abscission [agent], so that we dont have another effect, which is that abscissi on works almost to well and fruit ends up hitting the ground. Probably the biggest management challenge, with respect to abscission, is that when we apply the abscission that were able to go back in and harvest the those trees while the fruit is still at tached to the tree. Once it hits the ground, all value of abscission goes away. Mansfield: Youve talked about how they cant mechanically harvest past May? Roka: Right, May 1 st May 10 th yeah. Mansfield: So the growers are just the growers who use mec hanical harvesting just let their trees Roka: No, they hand pick. They have to come back in and hire hand crews to pick the rest of the crop. And that gets real expensive, very expensive. You have fewer people.


7 Um its been interesting, at least in this local area, around Immokalee. Ive heard several of the contract harvesters, that have hand crews complain about the fact that weve got a small group of growers that mechanically pick their early and mid season crop. Obviously without the need for a lot o f hand crews and then they come back about May 1 st and they are bidding up the price for the remaining hand pickers to come in and get their crop. Well, they can afford to bid up the price because theyve made all of this money in the early and mid season part. Yet, as a grower or a contract harvester, that has been working through the early and mid crop, now they are having to pay a higher price to the workers or being charged a higher price, if youre a grower to get this fruit picked. So theres been an interesting market dynamic that sort of manifested itself in terms of those people who have gone to the mechanical system, verses those harvesters and growers whove stayed away. But, yes its going to be and again weve talked about the economics of mech anical harvesting and its ability to lower the cost of harvesting is entirely a function of use and making those machines run. The longer they run, the more fruit they can pick in an hours time and the more hours they can work, not only in a day, but over the course of a season, then that starts to manifest itself in some real savings. As with any piece of equipment, youve got a certain amount of fixed costs that go into that piece of equipment and youve got to pay that cost, whether you run it or not. So the more you run it the more units you have to spread over that fixed cost and thats when were going to see real savings start to accrue. So abscission is going to do a couple of things. Number one, its going to extend the hours that these machines c an work in a season. In other words, instead of having to stop May 1 st or May 10 th whatever the date is, now maybe they can work through June1st, maybe even through June 15 th So youre adding four to six weeks of available time that those machines can r un. Mansfield: And eliminating the hand crews, or seriously reducing them? Roka: And not having the number of people that you [currently] need. Also recognizing that historically, even before machines came into the area, the price of a hand crew would


8 s tart to go up as you got later and later into the Valencia season. [This happens] for two reasons: number one, just the overall work environment gets nastier. Its hotter and more humid. So now, to induce people to continue to pick, you got to pay more. Bu t also the later the Valencia crop goes the fewer boxes per acre are out there, so again to have a hand crew come in and pick on a piece rate, youve got to increase the level of the piece rate. So, it gets more expensive to harvest by hand, as you go late r into the season. So having an abscission agent, that works with the machines, now allows the machines to go further into the season, thereby reducing the over all cost of running that equipment, which then translates back to the early and mid season cro p as well. Now your whole cost structure has changed and now you can afford, back in December and January, to lower your costs to mechanically harvest, there by increasing that differential between hand and mechanical [harvesting]. Getting that reluctant g rower to [say]: Oh, before it was a twenty cent differential and now youre taking about a fifty cent differential? Well, fifty cents times five hundred boxes now were talking about $250.00 that are in my pocket, as a grower. Now Im starting to get inte rested [in mechanical harvesting]. If it only cost me $100.00 to prep the trees, now in one season Im getting all of that money back, plus some. So as that differential gets wider and wider, more growers are going to get interested in it. In a sense it k ind of feeds on itself. Because as more growers get interested in mechanical harvesting, the machines are being employed more, longer and then the cost keeps going down. Now, eventually, it will get to some point, some equilibrium. And I have made the stat ement that we can get down to, certainly below seventy five cents a box, but maybe go as low as fifty cents a box verses where we are now, which is at $1.50. So the potential for mechanical harvesting, in my opinion, is enormous. I mean it has enormous fin ancial potential. If youre talking about [saving] $1.00 per box in harvesting costs, and thats net, then [if youve got a nice grove thats producing five hundred boxes per acre] then youre talking and additional $500 per acre, per year a grower can ear n, that he wouldnt have had before. So ther e is a significant amount of potential o ut there. I t s not going to be reali z ed right way I t s going to take a lot of time a lot of in vestment and a lot of learning for people to fully re alize the potential.


9 Mansfield: Do you think that would ma ke Florida competitive with Brazil, without the tariff? Roka: That s a tough question. It would help enormously, yes. But there are still other factors, so I would hesitate to say that only mechanical w ill save Florida citrus. I would be over reac hing to say that. [But,] it would help signif ic a ntly. If you re being partisan, you re hop ing that the Brazilian s cost mi ght start to increas e It s the re lative difference between the two that is really the competitive edge So as Brazilian costs go up, for wh atever r eason m aybe lab o r cost start to go up and F l orida can keep her costs down and there will be more of an equilibrium between them. But now you re relying on the Brazilian economy to work i n direction that s favorable to Florida. M a n sfield: I guess i f Brazil were to go to mechanic a l harvesting then you re righ t back to where you started. Roka: Well, except I wouldn t be too concerned about that. This is one ar ea where I would not worry about technology b eing transferred Bec ause if Brazil can hand ha rvest, ( and this is of course what Ron [Muraro] is saying ) netting fr o m thirty t o forty cents a box I mean if they bring in the machines, well the i r costs can only go up. A machine can t achieve anymore of a cost reduction than th ey already have now. It s just doesn t compute in my head that you can have a signi fic a nt cost savings. You know, not to be facetious but [someone] jokingly said that the [Flori da] Department of Citrus should pay the freig ht to send some machines down to Brazil, if t hey would g uarantee that they would use them. Mansfield: [laughs] Roka: Because their costs would only go up. I cant see their costs going down, with Brazilians u sing mechanical harvesting.


10 But the issue of competitiveness is still an open question. I mean, righ t now we re looking at tremendous increase of land pri ces within the S tate of Florida and this is outside of the competitive area, but it still has be a ring. It s not just labor in Brazil it s also land costs and right now we re seeing a tremendous explosi on of land valu es in Florida. The grower has got to serious ly think about it. That beco m es a cost of operation as well. And regulatory costs are also in the re. So, ther e are a number of factors that are going o impact whether Florida stays competitive or can become more competitive, even w i th the tariff But, in terms of I guess not a short term fix, but in terms of a more immediate help, then I would say mechanic a l harvesting would be one [solution and ] p robably the most im portant aspect. But we ve only been talking about production and cost. The other side of the equation is demand. The industry has certainly has been b acking up, in terms of demand. Maybe [the Atk ins diet] had something to do with it, low [carbohydrates] diets and all of that a nd juice being perc e i ved as high sugar and there fore high carb s. For whatever reason ther e has bee n a significant drop in the demand for orange juice, whether fresh of frozen con centrate. That probably ha s had a big hurt on the industry. If that can be turned aro und and you looked at o ther areas of the world, like China, or even Latin America, or Europe and seeing an increa se in dema nd for orange juice T hen as you see the price of juice goes up, then the competitive force s between Florida and Brazil will also go awa y. Because now the markets are broadening and prices are g oing up and so the issues of [the] tariff and compet itiveness go away, under the conditions of in creasing demand. Mansfield: Okay maybe that would be a good place to wrap th is up and let you g et on to your safety meeti ng. But I ve been throwing questions at you for the pas t hour or so, is there anything you want to tell me about that I haven t asked about? Roka: [pause] I m sure there is, but when you force me to thi nk about it, probably not. I m e an Florida and citrus are prett y synonymous I ts a you know sometimes when people argue about you know


11 A s an economist, certainly being traine d and NC State [University, Raleigh, NC] I was ingrained with the philosophy o f free trade. It s the way t o go. And, yes there are arguments for efficiencies and trade and most of the benefits accruing to the consumers, in terms of high quality cheap food. I probably should say inexpensive and not cheap food Mansfield: Affordable food. Roka: Affordable food, whatever. S o I was strongly indoctrinated in th at philosophy and to a large extent I still hold to [ the philosophy of free trade] But as people dis cuss the tariff and this issue, when you get out to the front lin es and see the actual issues that pe ople are dealing with and you see some of the challeng es that growers are having to deal with, you become sensitized [ Y ou become sensitized ] to the fact that t ariffs migh t have a valuable function. We havent talked about the cultural aspect of Florida c itrus. I know we [talked e arlier about the highly im portant cultural aspect of Florida s] cattle industry, in terms o f how the state has developed. A lot of times these argu m e nts of tariffs an d trade get wrapped up in sole l y economic arguments and we somet imes forget th at there s a cultur a l side to the state or the economy Y ou can t put a dollar value on it but never the less it s still impor tant. And maintaining citrus [in Florida] wou ld p robably be as much of a cultur a l importance to the state as it wo uld be [ econom ically important] Then another reason wo u ld be environmental. Th er e are some environmental issues that we cou ld get into When I fi r s t came here to Florida, ten years ago I was struc k by the acrimony between environmental interests and agr icultural inte rests. E nviron mental inter ests were saying that agricultur al was destroying the envi r onm e n t and this and t hat. [That was] something I d not found in Nor t h Carolina or previously in Maryland. Usually environmental i n terests and agricultural in terests were a little more ali g n ed and against urban growth So I think that argu me n t even d o wn here is startin g to turn around. But there are possibilities for agricultural lands to be used for enviro nmental purposes as well as for the food comm odity th at they produce So, again once the land goes away, once the land is converted out of agriculture into su bdivisions, or what ever,


12 then we ve pr etty much lost whatever opportunity we would have for those other types of servic es. So again, a re a son for the tariff might be eco nomic, might be cultur a l but maybe m ore of a risk management idea. If the tariff can preserve citrus a little while longer, no t only will technology, like mechanic a l harve sting be developed, but we also might better understand how citru s properties can fit better into the environmental landscape a nd a l low those properties to be compensated fo r the environmental services. And with out the tariff just a straight economic calculation given the cost of land, given the price of ju ice from B ra zil and given all of these other factors, well let s just dump citrus and get out of citrus. Mansfield: Let the market have its way ? Roka: Let the market have its way. And while [I m] as much of a proponent as I can be, I ve also come t o realize that th er e are certain things that the mar k et can t capture And especially the longer term vision that might be more appropriate out there, the market simply can t capture [it]. So sometimes these policies while they might work against the short ter m economic i nterests of free trade, might hav e some longer term benefits that will be econ omically advantageous to the community that w ill preserve some. I dont know T hat s a long winded answer M a n s field: Well, it s a good answer and I apprec iate you bring ing it up, because other people have mentioned that And let em remind you again that the information you ve shared with me will be deposited in the U n iversity of Sout h Flor ida s Special Collections Roka: [laughs] M a n sfield : I ve got to put this on tape for the record and I ve got to ask you to sign a release form.


13 Roka: Sure, does that me a n my grand kids can come to the U n iversity of South Florida and dig this up? Mansfield: And hear what gran d dad sounded like, back in 2005. Roka: [l aughs] That can be kind of exciting, thank you for the opportuni ty. Mansfield: Okay, great. Let me shut this [recorder ] off [E nd of interview ]

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Roka, Fritz Michael,
Fritz Roka
h [electronic resource] /
interviewed by William Mansfield.
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida Tampa Library,
1 sound file (22 min.) :
digital, MPEG4 file +
e 1 transcript (digital, PDF file)
Florida citrus oral history project
Beginning of interview only as notes in transcript.
The interview focuses on mechanical harvesters and displaced labor caused by mechanical harvesting. Discussion included the importance of Florida's citrus industry in Florida's culture and history.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
Interview conducted June 22, 2005, in Immokalee, Fla.
Roka, Fritz Michael,
Citrus fruit industry
z Florida.
Citrus fruits
x Harvesting.
Free enterprise
7 655
Oral history.
2 local
Online audio.
Mansfield, Bill.
University of South Florida Libraries.
Florida Studies Center.
Oral History Program.
University of South Florida.
Tampa Library.
University of South Florida.
Globalization Research Center.
4 856