published on March 21, 2017 - 10:17 AM
Written by The Business Journal Staff
Earlier this year, the California Department of Food and Agriculture mailed letters to about 6,000 citrus farmers, trucking companies and others involved in shipping commercial citrus, informing them of new rules about transporting the fruit.


The rule requires citrus being moved in open truck beds to be covered with a tarp to avoid the spread of the disease-carrying Asian citrus psyllid. While the rule requires such precautions if driving out of a state-designated quarantine area, there is a new requirement for truckers to do this while moving within those quarantine areas as well.

That goes for whether a truck is going hundreds of miles, a quarter mile or even to a neighboring grove if the vehicle enters or crosses a state or county road, said Nawal Sharma, environmental program manager for the CDFA’s emergency quarantine program.

State officials are taking the new rules so seriously that they’re authorizing the California Highway Patrol and sheriff’s deputies in the 29 California counties under full or partial quarantines to pull over trucks with untarped loads, Sharma told a crowd of citrus growers and others involved in the industry gathered for the California Citrus Mutual’s 2017 Citrus Showcase March 2 at the Visalia Convention Center.

At least that was the plan when CDFA officials approved the emergency order in December 2016, at which time they set a March 1 start date to begin enforcement.

But that didn’t happen, because on that same day, CDFA officials decided to temporarily suspend enforcement, with Sharma explaining that along with the 6,000 notifications sent to businesses that haul citrus were revised bulk citrus compliance agreements incorporating the new citrus transport rules.

But by the start of March, only about half of those signed agreements had been returned to CDFA, prompting the decision to temporarily suspend enforcement in order to give businesses more time to fill out and return the agreements, he said.

“The goal of the program is to stop the spread of the pests,” Sharma said of the psyllids, which are capable of contracting and spreading the bacteria huanglongbing — or “HLB” — from infected trees to healthy trees.

Once infected, citrus trees produce bitter, mottled fruit, lose productivity and eventually die. There is no cure or inoculation for the trees, and the citrus industry considers the disease a threat capable of devastating or even wiping out California’s $3.5 billion citrus industry, noting massive losses that already have occurred in several countries, including Mexico, Brazil and China.

And in Florida, where HLB was first detected in 2004, the disease has wiped out about 70 percent of its citrus by some estimates, compared to that state’s peak production in the 1997-98 season.

Psyllids and HLB also have been found in other states, including Texas, Georgia and Louisiana.

And one U.S. Department of Agriculture report paints the threat as so severe to say, “At its current rate of spread and impact on the economics of citrus production, HLB could destroy the U.S. citrus industry in our lifetimes.”

In Southern California, the psyllids were first detected in 2008, and since then they’ve migrated across that portion of the state.

A total of 39 HLB-infected trees have been found in the areas of Hacienda Heights, Cerritos and San Gabriel, but no infected psyllids have been found.

Once the psyllids were discovered in the state, California’s citrus industry, working with state and federal agencies, early on launched efforts to battle the HLB threat that has involved spraying, removing infected trees and working to keep the insects from making their way north, to the state’s main citrus areas. Those efforts included CDFA-imposed quarantines in areas where the insect was found that require stems and leaves to be cleaned off harvested citrus — because those are the parts of trees where they feed — in groves or at packing houses and requiring that citrus being trucked out of quarantined areas be covered.

Despite these efforts, psyllids have shown up in mostly small numbers throughout the Valley, the Central Coast and the northern part of the state.

Those finds have prompted the citrus quarantines, with 10 counties fully quarantined, Tulare and Fresno counties among them.

Experts say the movement of the psyllids north hasn’t been a natural migration, but likely the result of the insects getting aboard trucks or cars heading north, which likely is why many of the insects have been found near truck stops and major traffic arteries in this part of the state.

That’s why the requirement to cover citrus loads is being extended, even within quarantine zones, to reduce the opportunities for psyllids to migrate, experts say.

“This can be done in several ways, including but not limited to the use of a shipping container, tarp, enclosed vehicle — including curtain van — or another method that completely covers bulk citrus during transport,” states an advisory by the California Citrus Mutual.

It goes on to say that bulk citrus loads have to be fully covered during transport, even if they don’t leave a quarantine area and also if a citrus load starts out in a non-quarantined area but ends up within one.

Marylin Kinoshita, agricultural commissioner for Tulare County, said the CHP has been briefed on keeping any eye out for uncovered citrus loads, as has her own county sheriff’s department.

In addition, she said she plans to hire extra county agricultural staff to work with county agricultural inspectors already at packinghouses to watch out for uncovered loads going out or arriving.

“We’re going to do anything we can to protect our citrus,” she said, adding that, “We need to get our compliance agreements in place as soon as possible.”

Nick Hill, chairman of the Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Committee, an advisory group to the California secretary of agriculture that recommended the revised tarping rules, said the CDFA still is working with the CHP on how compliance will be enforced.

The amount violators can be fined also hasn’t been determined.

Some in the trucking industry have been critical of the new rules, citing concerns about being able to buy enough tarps to be ready to comply with the new rules once enforcement begins.

Sharma said no date has been determined to start enforcement, but the delay may only last a few weeks.

Fred Parra, logistics supervisor for Baggie Farms Express Trucking in Fresno, said his company ordered the tarps they needed at the beginning of the year, soon after hearing the new rules had been approved by the CDFA.

He said the tarping will add an hour to preparing each load of citrus for transport and another hour for unloading, and there are added risks for drivers when they climb onto the truck beds to smooth out and tie down the tarps.

And the extra cost for that added will be billed to his clients.

“I’m sure we’ll be paying for it,” said Stan Ishii, who operates an Orange Cove citrus grove.

But to protect California’s citrus from the threat of Asian citrus psyllids and HLB, he said, “It’s gotta be done.”

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