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Caught in the middle
Tree movement would be severely restricted
While a planned quarantine of citrus will be a major inconvenience for growers and packers, it will also be a headache for commercial nurseries that ship trees all over the state.
State and federal ag officials are moving to declare a quarantine of citrus in response to the discovery of an Asian citrus psyllid. The move could come as soon as next week. The tiny pest is no threat by itself to citrus, but it can transmit the tree disease Huanglongbing (HLB), also known as citrus greening, and is the greatest threat the citrus industry has ever faced.
There is no cure for the deadly bacterial disease, which can kill citrus trees in as little as five years. It was first discovered in the United States in 1998, and the first evidence of it appearing in California was in March. It has devastated large parts of the Florida citrus industry, wiping out entire orchards.
Because the disease only is on the stems or leaves of citrus trees, movement of oranges is not as restricted once they are stripped of any vegetation and washed. However, moving trees is another story.
Commercial nurseries like B&Z Nursery on Newcomb Avenue had already begun preparing for what many in the citrus industry felt was inevitable — the arrival of the psyllid.
“Our plan is to have every single tree growing under protection,” said B&Z general manager Leonard Massey. Already, the 200,000 tree facility has two large indoor facilities with plans for nine more. Eventually, all its tree seedlings and root stock trees will be enclosed in structures that are designed to keep out insects and diseases.
Under the quarantine, unless trees are growing in a controlled environment they will not be allowed out of the quarantine area. For B&Z, that is would definitely hurt its business.
Massey explained, however, a quarantine for the psyllid is much less restrictive than one for the disease, should it ever show up in the county.
A psyllid was discovered in late October in an orchard northeast of Strathmore. It is the second find of the bug in less than a year. The first psyllid was found in December. While state ag officials are treating the two finds as related, many in the industry do not agree and are hopeful the quarantine, expected to be imposed next week, would be put off to see if the finds are isolated and not connected to a breeding population.
In the meantime, businesses like B&Z have to be prepared, because it is the movement of foliage that is restricted. Once citrus is cleaned and packed, it can be shipped anywhere in the world.
Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner Marilyn Kinoshita said growers who ship their fruit out of the area for packing will incur some problems. They will either have to clean it before moving it out of the quarantined area or pay to have it packed locally. Both will come at a cost.
She said nurseries will feel the impact the most, but Massey said it is not the end of the world.
“I think we are proactive as an industry and that we can continue with the psyllid,” he said. He said everyone knew this day was coming.
Right now, the big concern is the uncertainty on how the quarantine will be implemented.
Also, his contracts with growers are usually a year in advance. That is how long it takes them to get a tree ready for planting in an orchard. The uncertainty is what will they do with trees destined for orchards outside the quarantined area. Those inside the area won’t be affected.
“We ship a fair amount out of the area,” he said.
The new facilities are state of the art, with positive atmospheric pressure, so when the doors are opened the blast of air keeps any insect from entering. The building that houses its bud wood stock is double-doored and visitor must clean their shoes and sign in upon entering.
The trees in that facility are the ones used to start the seedlings.
The company just completed in July its first enclosed hot house for production trees — trees that “will go out to the field for planting,” Massey said. The 66-by-360-foot structure is also controlled to ensure no insects get inside. They have begun construction on a second structure and have plans for eight more. Those plans, said Massey, are being accelerated because of the quarantine.
The structures are needed because in order to grow commercial citrus trees, the nursery will have to do so indoors in facilities that are federally-approved, insect-resistant structures.
Calling the hot houses a “huge investment,” Massey said it is just part of doing business. He said the fact that the citrus industry has been so strong the past few years has made the necessary changes easier to make.
Massey said there have been many changes in the citrus industry over the last several years.
“It’s kind of a neat time in the industry. Things are changing rapidly, but things like the quarantine come along and cause heartache,” he said.
Still, he is not against a quarantine if it is needed.
“We need to protect the industry,” he said. However, he is not sure the two finds warrant a quarantine right now.
Officials said Wednesday that the quarantine would be for a minimum of two years. Although the area has not been announced, it is believed to be roughly from just south of Woodlake to south of Ducor.
And, the quarantine is not just for commercial citrus and citrus trees. Private property owners with citrus trees will be prohibited from taking that citrus off their property, and retail stores will be restricted in where they can sell citrus trees. Also, plans are being made to treat the areas near where the psyllids were found, including private backyards.
Neither the psyllid nor the citrus greening disease affects the fruit, which is safe for human consumption.
Citrus is a $700 million industry in Tulare County, where there are 119,000 acres of commercial citrus, 61 packing houses, four juice plants and more than 13,000 residents earning their living in the citrus industry. In 2011, 706,000 citrus and subtropical trees were sold in Tulare County with a gross value of $6.9 million.
Residents who believe they have seen evidence of HLB in local citrus trees, should call CDFA’s toll-free pest hotline at 1-800-491-1899.