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Citrus psyllid looms as a major threat to California industry

by Rand Green | October 28, 2009
California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, CA, a trade association representing growers who farm more than 200,000 combined acres of citrus, is involved in dealing with assorted issues of concern to its members. Chief among those, currently, according to Joel Nelsen, president, are controlling the invasion of the Asian citrus psyllid, which is a vector for a potentially devastating citrus disease, finding ways "to market a variety of citrus crops" in such a way that one does not cannibalize another, and mitigating the ever-increasing burden of taxes and government regulations that adversely affect the industry.

The Asian citrus psyllid is a tiny aphid-like insect that can carry and transmit a bacterial plant disease known as citrus greening or Huanglongbing. The disease is harmless to humans but damages and eventually kills infected trees, and it ruins the flavor of the fruit or juice. "Once infected, there is no cure for a tree with citrus greening," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Huanglongbing has caused extensive damage and serious financial losses to the citrus industry in Florida.

The psyllid was detected in California last year in numerous locations in San Diego and Imperial counties and more recently in Los Angeles. Although the disease-causing organism has not yet been detected in California, experts say that wherever the psyllid goes, it is only a matter of time before the disease will show up.

State and federal agriculture officials, in cooperation with the California citrus industry, have been working aggressively to attempt to eradicate the psyllid infestations before the disease-causing organism comes on the scene.

The recent finds in Los Angeles were "much greater than I would have anticipated," said Mr. Nelsen. "It appears we've got a population that has been there for a couple of years."

It is an issue that is "taking up a lot of my time," he said. "Getting the general public to partner in understanding why the suppression if not the eradication of this is so important. Getting the industry to focus on a game plan and fund that game plan & is a problem that we are addressing, and so far the industry has been willing to step up to the plate. It doesn't mean we are going to necessarily be an ATM machine, but we will be putting more dollars into a variety of areas" ranging from technical support and trapping programs to grower education and consumer education.

"We have been really pleased as an industry with the support we have gotten from USDA and [the California Department of Food & Agriculture]," he said. "But the fact of the mater is we've got a myriad of detections in Southern California, and we've got to stop that psyllid from spreading."

Another issue of concern to the industry is how "to market a variety of citrus crops" in California in such a way that one variety does not cannibalize another, Mr. Nelsen said. "The industry has done fairly well economically for the last half dozen years, and because we have done fairly well, we have been able to transition into other varieties" of citrus, pulling out some that were economically weak and replacing them with "what we hope to be stronger, more consumer-satisfactory varieties."

But "you don't want to sell nothing but Mandarins and leave 100,000 acres of Navels not making any money," he said. So the focus of some internal industry discussions has been on how to give customers and consumers what they want while assuring that "all of our growers get a viable amount of revenue per acre." If there are weak varieties of Navels, "we need to get rid of them," he said. "If the consumers prefer a smaller piece of fruit that is easier to peel, we need to plant more of it. We need to have a better understanding of which varieties work in which demographical area at which time of the year, and we need to be tracking all of that."

At the same time, "we need to understand what our export customers want, because Navels are a strong export variety of citrus," he said.

The regulatory issues facing the industry at the state and federal level are many and complex. Among them are water issues that are diminishing the availability of water to agriculture and "climate change regulation strategies" that have become "quite cost prohibitive."

CCM has "a mandate to be more aggressive in these areas," Mr. Nelsen said. "The board themselves are going to become more active in representing the citrus industry in various arenas."

At the state level, "it is going to cause us to be more aggressive in Sacramento [CA] with these regulatory demands," he said. "There are just too many of them, and rather than trying to negotiate, we are going to draw lines in the sand."

(For more on California citrus, see the Nov. 2, 2009, issue of The Produce News.)