Business

Thursday, Nov 29 2012 11:41 AM

Tulare growers plan quarantines to battle citrus pest

BY ROBERT RODRIGUEZ The Fresno Bee

TULARE -- About 700 citrus growers, packers and nursery owners met with state and county officials Wednesday in Tulare to voice their concerns over the recent discovery of one of the citrus industry's most dreaded pests.

Parts of Tulare County, the state's leading orange grower, have been under careful watch by agriculture officials after they found three Asian citrus psyllids, a tiny insect capable of carrying a deadly plant disease.

So far, the disease, known as citrus greening or huanglongbing, has not surfaced in the San Joaquin Valley.

But the discovery of the insects alone was enough to worry growers and prompt government regulators to plan a quarantine in the areas where the bug was found to keep it from spreading.

On Wednesday, anxious farmers, who crowded into the International Agri-Center's Heritage Complex, peppered state and county regulators with questions on what steps they will have to take to protect their crop -- and at what cost.

Growers in the citrus industry seemed resigned to dealing with the added steps. They also realize they face little choice, if they want to preserve the county's $709 million orange and tangerine crop.

"We are not in panic mode yet," said Terry Peltzer, a citrus grower in the Woodlake and Ivanhoe area. "We realize we have to do everything we can to protect our industry."

Several growers wanted to know when the quarantine's boundaries will be announced and how long it will last.

Marilyn Kinoshita, Tulare County agriculture commissioner, said that at the earliest, the boundary lines will be revealed next week and the rules would remain in effect for a minimum of two years.

Who is in boundary lines matters to growers and packers. Those inside the zone will likely have to pay for cleaning equipment to make sure bins of citrus are free of leaves and stems, favorite hiding places of the psyllid. Kinoshita estimated that cost could be $10 a bin.

Nursery owners in the quarantine zone face tougher restrictions. They will be banned from selling trees outside of the zone, unless the trees have been raised in a screened enclosure.

As many as six nurseries may be in the quarantine's boundaries, including nursery grower George McEwen of Lindcove.

McEwen said the quarantine couldn't have come at a worse time. Demand for popular varieties of citrus including Cara Cara navels and tangerines has gone up over the last several years.

"We are going to be sweating if we can't find someone else to buy those trees," McEwen said.

Citrus greening has no known cure and has decimated Florida's citrus industry, where growers have lost $1.3 billion in revenue. The disease also has been found in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina.

So far, California's only case of the disease has been in a backyard citrus tree in Hacienda Heights. It has not surfaced in Tulare County and officials are hoping to keep it that way.

To protect the county's citrus crop, quarantine zones are being created around the areas where the bugs have been found, including Strathmore and Terra Bella.

Melinda Mochel, a senior environmental scientist for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said removing plant material from loads of citrus is critical to preventing the psyllid from hitchhiking to another area.

The insect feeds on citrus leaves and will attach itself to plant material.

"If growers are moving fruit out of that area, it must be clean," Mochel said.

But for some growers, that requirement is more than an added step -- it is a loss of revenue.

Some varieties of mandarins are sold with the leaves and stems attached and can fetch a higher price. Under the quarantine's rules, that type of citrus won't be allowed out of the area unless the plant material is removed.

"For those of us selling into those specialty markets, that is going to be a huge financial hit," said Peltzer, who farms several varieties of citrus, including navel, Valencias and tangerines.

About half of Peltzer's citrus acres are in the area where one of the psyllids was discovered.

"I know I am going to be in the quarantine zone, but what can I do?" Peltzer said.

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