Citrus image via California Citrus Mutual

published on June 13, 2017 - 10:03 AM
Written by David Castellon

The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) will have an additional $9.6 million to spend on efforts to protect citrus trees in residential areas from an insect-spread disease.

That disease is huanglongbing — or “HLB” — a bacteria that infects only orange, lemon, grapefruit and other citrus trees, initially causing them to produces bitter, mottled fruit before they die.

HLB, which is harmless to humans, has devastated citrus crops around the world, including in Florida, where it caused billions of dollars in damages.

So far, only a handful of infected trees have been found in Southern California, but the only insects capable of spreading the bacteria, Asian citrus psyllids — or “ACP” — have migrated in large numbers across Southern California, and some of those insects have made their way into Central California, the state’s primary citrus-growing region, as well as the coastal region and the Bay Area.

California citrus growers consider psyllids and HLB as a highly viable threat capable of devastating their industries, and experts say citrus grown in yards across the state are at an equal risk from the disease.

Since 2009 citrus farmers have imposed an assessment on their own harvested citrus — 9 cents per 40-pound carton — to raise money to fund efforts to combat the spread of HLB and to educate the public on the threat.

So far, those assessments have raised more than $100 million, with more than 95 percent of that money paying for trapping, applying insecticides to kill psyllids and checking trees in urban areas for signs of the insects and HLB infections among trees.

No cure for HLB-infected trees has been found yet, nor a way to inoculate citrus trees, despite extensive research being underway on these fronts.
The industry assessments are collected by the Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Program, managed by CDFA, but the agency has a spending limit established by state legislators, and that limit has been reached for this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Earlier this year, state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, authored Senate Bill 243, which provides a one-time authorization allowing CDFA to draw on additional money from a reserve fund of grower assessment fees.

The state Senate approved the bill overwhelmingly in a 39-0 vote earlier this month, and after it was presented to the Assembly by Dr. Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno — among the principal co-authors with Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia — the members passed it 77-0.

“HLB-infected trees are being found at an alarming rate in residential areas in Los Angeles and Orange Counties.  In the past 12 months, the number of detections has more than tripled,” states a press release issued by Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, noting the urgency that exists for passage of the bill.

“If ACP is left unchecked and HLB is allowed to take hold, it will be a death sentence for California’s $3 billion citrus industry,” said the Citrus Mutual’s President Joel Nelsen, whose nonprofit trade association represents about 2,500 citrus growers across the state, stated in the release. 

He also offered thanks to the Senate and Assembly members who championed SB 243.

Last week the bill was forwarded to the governor, and Citrus Mutual officials said they expect him to sign it by the end of the month.

The organization also is working to get funding to fight HLB and psyllid migration included in Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2017-18 state budget proposal, noting that the federal government has put in money to supplement the dollars raised by the industry through grower assessments.

“The Governor and Legislature, however, have repeatedly denied industry requests for state funding, the press release states. 

“Year after year, the issue has expanded and yet the state has remained a silent partner, despite the industry’s investment and generous support from the federal government,” Nelsen said in the press release. “With every new detection of HLB in the urban areas, California is one step closer to succumbing to the same fate as Florida, where their citrus industry has all but collapsed due to HLB. 

“The state has until June 15 to pass its budget, and we’re doing everything we can to make sure funding for ACP and HLB control is included.”

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