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FRESNO, CA — A tiny moth, just 0.03 inches long, called the European Grapevine Moth, has been detected in a California table grape growing area southeast of Fresno which has the potential to cause extensive crop damage and also to disrupt trade.

The California Grape & Tree Fruit League has been working with government agencies and with the wine grape, raisin grape and grape concentrate industries to control the spread of the moth and to minimize the adverse effects of quarantines on trade.

The first detection of the moth in California was in Napa County in September 2009. "The end of April, it showed up in Fresno County, so we now have a quarantine or regulated area, league President Berry Bedwell said July 6. “We are now completing the rules, the regulatory protocol for the federal order for grapes and for fruit other than grapes" affected by the quarantine, and “have been able to develop what would be equivalent to a systems approach” allowing grapes from within the 100-square-mile quarantine area to be shipped if procedures are followed that assure the shipments are free of the moth.

“We are looking at the harvest beginning in this particular area most likely next Monday [July 12]“ and expect to have the rules approved by then, he said. The systems-type approach would involve such things as trapping and spray programs as well as inspections “to make sure you are free from the pest so you can ship [the grapes] interstate and hopefully to other trading partners as well” without the necessity of methyl bromide fumigation.

Because of its potential to devastate grape crops, “you have to be very careful” to prevent the pest from spreading, he said.

Mr. Bedwell complimented the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service as well as the California Department of Food & Agriculture “for their role” in working with industry to deal with the infestation and its ramifications. “They have gone out of their way and been very communicative with the industry in creating a system that will protect other states and other countries but also will allow for movement of product as long as we don’t find the moth” in the shipments, he said.

The European Grapevine Moth originated in Europe, spread to North Africa and the Middle East, then to Japan, and in 2008 to Chile. “It showed up in September 2009 in Napa, which has a large wine grape industry, and has since spread to several other Northern California counties where quarantines are also in place, as well as to Fresno County.

The area encompassed by the quarantine boundaries in Fresno County is “very diverse in terms of agricultural production,” but there are more grapes than anything else. Olives are another primary host of the pest, and there are several secondary hosts, including stone fruit.

On grapes, the moth lays an egg on the fruit, and “the larvae, when it hatches will go in and feed on the berry,” causing decay and botrytis. “On the other hand, it is a pest that is easily controllable by the application of both conventional and organic materials,” providing the spraying is done “at the proper times,” he said.

How to prevent such exotic pests from entering the state in the first place is a continuing issue, and it is currently very much a resource issue, Mr. Bedwell said. “We have seen less dollars made available, both at the federal and state level, for invasive species overall. The budgets aren’t getting any better. They are getting worse.” Programs for education, detection and eradication are all under-funded, and people “need to understand that the benefits ... aren’t just for agriculture. They are for every consumer.”

Another issue with which the league was currently dealing is an ag workers overtime bill which would require that farmworkers be paid overtime rates after eight hours per day or 40 hours per week.

Under current law, farmworkers are exempted from that provision which is applicable to workers in other industries. Overtime for farmworkers presently goes into effect after 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week. “No other state” has provisions even that strict, said Mr. Bedwell. “And it is going to wind up hurting the very people” the bill’s well-intentioned sponsors are “trying to help.”

The bill has passed both houses of the state legislature and was on the governor’s desk awaiting his signature, he said.

The California grape industry is also concerned about a 70 percent punitive tariff on California grapes imposed by Mexico last year after a pilot program allowing Mexican trucks and drivers on U.S. highways, as required under the North American Free Trade Agreement, was discontinued. The league has urged the Obama administration to resolve that issue. The adverse effect on California grape exports to Mexico last year was “very clear,” as export volume declined to 1.6 million boxes in 2009, off 70 percent from the 5.5 million boxes exported the prior year.

(For more on California grapes, see the July 26, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)