It may not be typical but in this case the orange industry is facing a “death sentence,” fears Citrus Mutual President Joel Nelsen. That threat comes from the Asian Citrus Psyllid (ACP) that can carry deadly citrus greening disease (HCP) that has already devastated Florida’s citrus groves.
What can growers do to stop the spread of the insects into the state’s top citrus producing region?
“Who ya gonna call?” The government, of course.
“It’s no coincidence that these finds are occurring along major thoroughfares and at juice plants. Almost daily, bulk citrus loads are moving uncovered into the Central Valley from southern California,” he said. “Packinghouses are sending dirty bins back into the groves. Equipment is being hauled up and down the highway loaded with plant material.”
“If this continues, the industry will be the cause of its own demise,” he added.
Increasing numbers of the psyllids have been trapped in recent months along the Highway 99 corridor. Neil McRoberts, a University of California, Davis, plant pathologist and panelist at a recent grower meeting, says the overwhelming likelihood is that psyllids are coming into the Valley on bulk citrus shipments from infested areas.
Tarping bulk loads of citrus moving out of quarantine areas, wet-washing fruit in the field and treating fruit prior to harvest are all mitigation measures required to move citrus out of quarantine areas. But different levels of compliance by growers, packers and shippers, plus lack of enforcement, have allowed the psyllid to hitchhike its way north from infested parts of Southern California.
At a recent local citrus farmer meeting the problem was clearly laid out.
According to research out of Florida, ACP populations are greatest within 6.5 miles of major traffic corridors. ACP detections along Highway 99 and Highway 65 in the Central Valley indicate this model is also true in California. It’s also evident based on the number of psyllid detections at juice plants and packinghouses that the industry is contributing to the spread of ACP. According to panelist Dr. Neil McRoberts, the Tehachapis are a natural barrier over which psyllids will not travel. The only feasible way psyllids are coming over the Grapevine is by way of human transport – either by the general public, in loads of fruit, or on equipment.
Who is going to make sure more ACP do not travel here on leaf or branch material from Southern California where there is a major infestation? That’s where government can help, officials said.
Tulare County is home to 72 packing houses and four orange juice plants, says Tulare County Ag Commissioner Marilyn Kinsohita – where much of the state’s citrus is processed or packed.
“We have received a notice through California Citrus Mutual (CCM) that they are asking our office to place inspectors at all the packing sheds and juice plants to watch the crop movements,and make sure trucks are covered and that no plant material is allowed in.”
“They have told us they are willing to pay an additional assessment to cover the cost,what could easily be over $1 million in staff time.”
But time is short, she adds,“We need to make this happens quickly with the upcoming harvest starting in October.”
CCM explains they already get some government help and farmers are already dipping into their pockets.
“Growers are paying a nine-cent-per-carton assessment, over $15 million annually, to fund the Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Program in an effort to stop the spread of HLB. On top of that, the industry recently raised $8 million to build a containment facility in Riverside for HLB-specific research.
Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sends over $10 million per year to California for similar research. The Citrus Research Board dedicates a sizeable portion of its budget for research on ACP and HLB.”
Nelsen argues that “Individual negligence completely undermines the integrity of these programs and the financial investment by growers and the USDA “
The disease has already made its way into California infecting several Southern California trees. Just this month CDFA said that two additional trees have been confirmed positive for Huanglongbing (HLB). One tree is located in San Gabriel and the other is in Hacienda Heights, in very close proximity to the original HLB find from 2012.