James Bowling “Buster” Pratt (1924-2005)
Pratt Groves, Inc.
Sonny Citrus Feed Company
Lake Alfred Packing Company
Lake Alfred Citrus Research and Education Center
Clinton Foods/ Snow Crop – Coca Cola Foods
Polk County Fertilizer Company
Kaiser Agricultural Chemicals
Southern Area Groves & Nursery
Central Area Groves
Polk County Extension Citrus Advisory Committee
Florida Fruit Crop Association Teaching Advisory Committee
Florida Brown Citrus Aphid/Citrus Tristeza Virus Task Force
Budwood Registration Program
Diaprepes Root Weevil
James Bowling “Buster” Pratt was born July 2, 1924, in Louisville, Kentucky, the youngest of four children. He had an older brother, John, and two sisters, Patty and Jean. His father, John L. Sullivan Pratt, Sr., was named after the famous prizefighter. John was born in Harris County, Georgia, near Columbus, and his cousins owned the local grocery store there, Pratt’s Grocery, in the early 1900s. John took the children back to Harris County every two years to visit family. When John Pratt’s mother and his sister moved to Winter Haven, he visited them often and fell in love with the area. In 1938, John Pratt bought a 10-acre grove in Lake Alfred, which became the start of Pratt Groves and Buster Pratt’s introduction to the Florida citrus industry. From that point forward, Pratt would come down every summer to Lake Alfred and work in his father’s groves.
Pratt graduated from Louisville Male High School in 1942, during World War II, and joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He worked his way up from a private in the fire control section to Platoon Sergeant. On April 7, 1944, he married his high school sweetheart, Jean Pearson, in Oceanside, California. While Pratt was in the Marines, Jean worked for the Army Map Service under the direction of Lt. Col. Rand McNally. Upon his discharge after the war in 1946, Pratt and his wife moved south to Winter Haven and lived with his aunt, Luralene Brickman, a short time before moving into his own house in Haines City. His first job there was with Sonny Citrus Feed Co. working in the grove for $32 a week. From 1946-1950, he was with Lake Alfred Packing Company, and was promoted to grove foreman in two short years. Together, the Pratts had four children: three girls and a boy.
Pratt, as a member of the reserve unit in Tampa, was called back into service for the Korean War on July 15, 1950. Pratt received several medals and citations during his military career, but he would later only wear his Good Conduct medal, of which his mother was the most proud. When he received it, it had shocked her so much that she cried.
While in the service, Pratt met Dr. Tommy Thompson, who also had groves in the Lake Alfred area. A scientist at the Lake Alfred Citrus Research and Education Center, Dr. Thompson offered Pratt a job as a lab technician at the center, where he specialized on the spray programs for two years. It was there that Pratt met two other people who were to influence him throughout his life: Dr. Ivan Stewart and Dr. Jim Griffiths, also a Florida Citrus Hall of Fame member. They helped stimulate his thinking of the industry as a whole and encouraged him to share his knowledge and ideas by getting involved and volunteering with various organizations.
In 1953, he went to work for Clinton Foods/ Snow Crop as the Grove Production Dept. Manager, where he handled the company’s spray programs. There, he worked with another Hall of Fame member, Latt Maxcy. He was on the Board of Directors for the Polk County Farm Bureau from 1954 through 1962 and President in 1959-60. Pratt departed Clinton Foods/ Snow Crop in 1958 for Polk County Fertilizer Company in Haines City. There he made the switch from grove production to marketing as their sales representative. In 1962, he joined Kaiser Agricultural Chemicals and within three years had worked his way up to Sales Manager. A short five years later, Pratt was Director of Marketing.
Although the money was in sales, Pratt’s heart was in production and in 1976 he left Kaiser to return to managing the groves he’d handled for Snow Crop – only now they were known as Coca-Cola Foods. He was Manager of the Southern Area Groves and Nursery from 1976-1979 and Manager of the Central Area Groves, Production and Harvesting from 1980-1981. From 1974 to 1977 he was a Polk County Extension Citrus Advisory Committee Member and again from 1983 to 1985. In addition, Pratt took on the duties of City Commissioner for Haines City from 1974 to 1977. In 1977, he was also President of the Florida State Horticultural Society and became Chairman of the Board in 1978. From 1978 to 1983 he served as a member of the University of Florida Fruit Crops Association Teaching Advisory Committee. He actually helped form their curriculum committee with several UF alumni, which he felt was a real honor since he was not a college graduate himself. Pratt was named an Honorary Member of the Florida State Horticultural Society in 1980 and received the Outstanding Leadership Citrus Industry Award from the University of Florida Citrus Club in both 1978 and 1981.
Pratt was deeply involved in community service throughout his career. He had been a mentor for students at the University of Florida and Florida Southern College, as well as local schools in Polk County, including Bethune elementary where one of his 10 grandchildren attended. He volunteered there as a teacher’s aide every Wednesday for the five years.
In 1982, Pratt was promoted to the number two spot in Coca-Cola Foods: Assistant to the Director of Grove Operations. In 1983, Pratt received one of the most his prestigious awards, the Award of Merit for Distinguished Service to Agriculture, given to him by the University of Florida chapter of Gamma Sigma Delta, which is the Honor Society of Agriculture. He held his position as Assistant to the Director until his retirement in 1986. He continued working for Coca-Cola on a consultant basis for several years after his retirement and then focused his efforts on finding solutions to protect citrus and other plants from invasive exotic pests and diseases. During the entire time, he operated his family groves (Pratt Groves, Inc.) in Haines City.
Pratt’s efforts to protect citrus and other plants from invasive exotic pests and diseases have made an impact on Florida’s entire horticultural industry. As a member of the Florida Brown Citrus Aphid/Citrus Tristeza Virus Task force, he was instrumental in helping the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) develop pro-active measures for minimizing the damage expected from this pest/disease complex. This included the effort to rear and release parasites of the aphid and the implementation of a mandatory citrus budwood registration program to help keep severe strains of citrus tristeza virus out of citrus nursery stock. However, Pratt’s most significant contribution was his effort to address Diaprepes root weevil and burrowing nematode. In 1993, he single-handedly initiated the FDACS Diaprepes Task Force, which was made up of concerned growers, researchers and regulatory officials. He served as chairman until January 2000, and during that time great strides were made in helping to control the movement of this exotic root weevil around the state. He was recognized by Governor Lawton Chiles for bringing the problem to the attention of state and federal government, which resulted in over $500,000 of state and federal funding a year to help find better controls.
Pratt was well known in research communities for his long-running role as a grower “cooperator” who actively participated in research experiments and programs in his groves. Mr. Pratt collaborated with Dr. Robert Koo (another member of the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame), of the Citrus Research and Education Center at Lake Alfred, on the use of fertigation to enhance grove production. He became a pioneer in that field through his observations and practices, which are now in use today.
Pratt was inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame in 2001, for his long career as a farmer, merchant, community servant, and researcher. Throughout his career, Pratt had the support of Jean, his wife of 56 years, and their family. Pratt passed away in 2005, leaving behind a legacy of philanthropy, education, and innovation. There are many young students that he has helped train and find jobs for who today are thankful for his mentorship. He helped shape future industry leaders through the insight, common sense, enthusiasm and personality that he brought to everything with which he was involved.