An abandoned citrus grove sits near Strathmore. Photo contributed.

published on December 11, 2017 - 1:09 PM
Written by David Castellon

The huanglongbing virus isn’t just a concern for California citrus farmers — it’s also a concern for counties and cities across the Valley. If the disease devastates citrus crops, it could cost jobs and tax revenue.

Kuyler Crocker is acutely aware of this, being both a citrus farmer and a supervisor in Tulare County, where sales of oranges, lemons and other fresh citrus were tops in the nation last year, totaling more than $1.3 billion.

So its not surprising he put forth earlier this month a proposal for his county to set aside $250,000 from its general fund to pay to cut down or uproot trees from abandoned citrus groves.

The board voted to approve the proposal on Nov. 14.

The reason behind the action is an insect, the Asian citrus psyllid, which is the only known carrier of huanglongbing — or “HLB” — a bacteria that ruins the fruit on infected trees and eventually kills them.

It’s spread by psyllids feeding off the branches and leaves of infected citrus trees and then infecting healthy trees when they feed upon them.

The disease isn’t harmful to humans nor is eating the fruit from infected trees.

There is no cure for HLB nor is there a way to inoculate trees against it, so the only strategy available to protect California’s commercial citrus groves is to fight the growth of psyllid populations and their migration to the state’s major citrus-growing areas, which includes much of the Valley.

To that end, farmers are spraying their citrus trees to try to kill psyllids, but that’s not happening in abandoned groves, Crocker said.

“We have a lot of individuals who lived in the city. They said, ‘Hey, we want to live out in the countryside,’ and they bought five-acres, a 10-acre parcel, they bought a nice home, but they didn’t understand farming — what’s involved, what it takes to do that,” so during the recent drought years, they couldn’t afford the skyrocketing costs to buy additional water to irrigate and decided farming wasn’t for them, he explained.

In the process, “They just left their trees to die. But the trees aren’t actually dead, because they still are producing a flush [of leaves] in the spring and fall,” Crocker said.

“It’s not enough to produce a crop, but it’s enough to harbor these rice-grain sized insects,” the psyllids, he said. “That’s enough for them to eat and to grow and to go over into commercial crops.”

It also allows the psyllids to breed and even thrive in pockets of land away from insecticides, Crocker said.

“In Tulare County, it’s a big deal because we have over 132,000 acres of citrus. It is over a billion dollar commodity, as we are the citrus-growing hotbed for the state of California and for the nation,” he added.

Under Tulare County’s program, code-enforcement officers will notify owners of abandoned groves that they need to cut down or uproot the trees, and if that doesn’t happen within 60 days, the county will pay to have it done.

Crocker estimated that probably will cost about $500 an acre, but Tulare County will make the money back by putting tax liens on the properties, so the county will be reimbursed as a condition of the properties being sold or if the county forecloses on the land and sells it off.

Not that there are many abandoned groves. Crocker said he has seen a few in the Strathmore area, near where he farms, and estimated at least 1,000 abandoned acres exist in Tulare County.

But Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, an Exeter-based, nonprofit trade association representing citrus growers, estimated there probably are no more than a couple of hundred abandoned acres of citrus trees in Tulare County and maybe 500 across the Valley.

He added that his organization plans to help Tulare County officials identify abandoned groves with trees still in the ground.

“As long as the trees are there, that’s a reservoir for the disease.”

The spread of psyllids and the resulting infections of citrus crops have cost billions in damage and lost revenues for years in countries that include China and Brazil. Crocker noted that in Florida alone, HLB has cut citrus production by about 60 percent.

Farmers here consider HLB a major, viable threat to California’s $3 billion citrus industry.

Asian citrus psyllids were first found in Southern California six years ago, and the first diseased tree was found there three years ago.

“We are doing survey work in commercial groves, not only in the San Joaquin Valley, but also in Ventura, Riverside and Imperial counties. We’re finding diseased trees [down south], fortunately and unfortunately both are in urban areas, in back yards,” not in commercial groves, Nelsen said.

Psyllids also are being found in smaller numbers in the Valley, the Central Coast and the Bay Area, though no HLB-infected trees have been found here, he added.

Nelsen praised Tulare County for taking a proactive step to help fight the spread of HLB, but noted that San Bernardino County was the first in the state to launch a comparable program.

For his part, Crocker said he plans to meet with Fresno County officials to try to get a similar program launched there, while Nelsen said Citrus Mutual is working to float similar proposals in Riverside and Ventura counties.

“We’re hoping to get this into all nine of the major citrus-producing counties in California.”

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