Food and Resource Economics Alumnus Robert Behr inducted into Florida Citrus Hall of Fame 

For his decades-long contributions to the Florida Citrus industry as a grower, economic analyst and leader for the grower’s cooperative Florida’s Natural, UF Food and Resource Economics (FRE) alumnus Robert Behr was recently inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame 

Robert Behr
Dr. Robert Behr

 “I feel incredibly humbled by this honor and have been blessed with a lot of great mentorship and counseling throughout my career in Florida’s citrus industry,” Behr said. 

Foundations in FRE 

Behr, who completed his Ph.D. in Food and Resource Economics at UF in 1981, credits the program as a critical component of his career success in the citrus Industry.  

“My graduate program in FRED helped me hone critical economic thinking, which is essential for making a sound business judgment,” Behr said. “I’m especially indebted to Dr. Ron Ward for his mentorship and encouragement.” 

Behr’s lifelong connections fostered in the Food and Resource Economics Department were personal as well as professional. 

“Incidentally, I met my wife, Sarah, who began work in Dr. Ward’s office in 1978: we were married in 1979, celebrating our 45th this year with 3 sons and 2 granddaughters,” Behr said. 

Among the faculty Behr also found a business partner in Tom Spreen, professor emeritus. One of his fondest memories, Behr said, was of his first class taken (microeconomics) which coincidentally was Spreen’s first class taught as a newly hired assistant professor. 

“Tom and I have stayed close over the years, becoming business partners in several citrus groves,” Behr said. “I always called on Tom for counsel on citrus industry economic issues: he knew the industry and issues as well as anyone.” 

Leadership in the Florida Citrus Industry 

Behr has used his expertise in agricultural economics to serve as a leader in the state’s citrus industry for many decades, ever since becoming the chief economist for the Florida Department of Citrus in 1987. He held this role for several years before joining the grower’s cooperative Citrus World, now Florida’s Natural, in 1994. 

Behr viewed the first-hand experience he gained through owning several citrus groves, including those in which he partnered with Spreen, as critical to his leadership of Florida’s Natural during his tenure as CEO from 2015 until his retirement from the company in 2022.  

“As you know, Florida’s Natural is a grower-owned cooperative,” Behr said. “ A former Chairman of the Board, Frank Hunt II (father of its current Chairman Frank Hunt III), was a strong believer that senior management should have a grower’s perspective when making business decisions that impacted its grower members: I could not agree more with that philosophy, and I feel it helped with my Board relationship since I also had ‘skin in the game’.” 

As the industry has grappled with the onslaught of citrus greening, an infectious horticultural disease that continues to devastate the citrus crops today, Behr has been one of many leading the charge to find solutions for the threats facing the citrus industry through technology and policy.  

He has advocated strongly for the use of new methods of crop protection, such as C.U.P.S. (Citrus Under Protective Screen) growing systems which prevent Asian citrus psyllids, the insect which serves as a vector for the HLB virus that causes citrus greening, from reaching plants and infecting them  

“Technology is an essential tool for the Florida citrus industry to overcome the impacts of this deadly disease,” Behr said. “CUPS is one technology that is allowing Florida citrus growers to compete in the fresh fruit market, primarily grapefruit,” Behr said.  

He also led the drive to protect the industry and strengthen supply amidst losses from greening and hurricanes through a planting incentive program at Florida’s Natural, a tool to lessen the grower risk of planting new citrus trees. 

“Encouraging citrus production was critical for meeting the fruit needs of Florida’s Natural Brand,” Behr said. “In hindsight, the planting incentive program was instituted prematurely because, at the time, we did not recognize the severity of citrus greening, and many of the incentivized plantings succumbed to this disease.  Nonetheless, the concept of finding ways to mitigate the risk of planting and growing healthy citrus trees is a worthy endeavor for our industry.” 

Despite having retired for Florida’s Natural, Behr remains highly involved in the state’s citrus industry in other ways. 

Looking to the Future 

In the face of continuing challenges from the HLB virus and citrus greening, he continues to see hope for the industry as innovative technologies such as CUPS (Citrus Under Protective Screen) continue to be developed and adapted.  

“On-going efforts to find a disease-resistant tree or means to eliminate the bacterial infection are critical for industry survival,” Behr said. “Our industry may look a lot different in the years ahead, but it will be technological initiatives that chart the course of our industry’s future.” 

For current students of food and resource economics looking to become leaders of agricultural and natural resource industries, Behr had this advice: 

Developing sound economic thinking is essential for students as they embark on careers where the vast majority of decisions involve some form of economic perspective. Often, it seems economic classes have no real-world relevance, but in reality, these courses are providing the foundation for critical economic thinking, which is an essential ingredient in any successful industry endeavor, including agriculture and natural resources.


Alena Poulin
Posted: May 15, 2024

Category: Agribusiness, Agriculture, Crops
Tags: Florida Citrus, Food And Resource Economics, Food And Resource Economics Alumni, Food And Resource Economics Awards

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