Growers Up Ante to Fight Citrus Disease

Asian citrus psyllids

California citrus growers are taking their fight against huanglongbing (HLB) and the Asian citrus psyllid to the backyards of California homes.

This week, the California State Assembly approved a bill that will allow the citrus industry to increase spending for activities to protect residential and commercial citrus trees from the invasive insect Asian citrus psyllid (ACP) and the deadly plant disease it can carry, huanglongbing (HLB). 

SB 243 by state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton) allows for an additional $9.6 million in grower assessments to be spent by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) for ACP and HLB control programs.

Because assessment funds are collected by the Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Program, which is managed by CDFA, the spending authority level for the program is granted by the Legislature.

SB 243 was passed unanimously by the Senate last week and the State Assembly followed suit on Monday. The governor is expected to sign the bill by the end of the month. 

The bill does not increase the assessment for growers who have been funding the fight against HLB. According to Alyssa Houtby with California Citrus Mutual, the money is excess collected over the past few years.

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.

“It tells us it’s expanding, but also the program is working to discover those trees,” said Houtby. She said a dozen more infected trees were found in just the past couple of months, forcing an expansion of the quarantine area there.

Houtby said 60 trees in Los Angeles and Orange counties were removed because they have HLB. The disease carried by the psyllid, is deadly to citrus trees and there is no cure or preventive measures available to growers. On Thursday, CDFA announced it had confirmed HLB in Orange County. The disease was detected in plant material taken from a lemon tree in a residential neighborhood in La Habra and from three trees (two lemon and one grapefruit) in a residential neighborhood in Anaheim.

She said fortunately, the disease has not spread too far. “There is concern, in the scientific community, we may have HLB outside that area,” she cautioned.

Tulare County growers have been battling the psyllid since the first one was discovered here in late 2011. Thousands have been found — most dead on traps — but so far HLB has only been found in trees in southern Los Angels County and northern Orange County. HLB was first detected in the Hacienda Heights area in 2012.

“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,” says California Citrus Mutual (CCM) President Joel Nelsen.

“Our Central Valley senators and assemblymembers were instrumental in moving this legislation,” said Nelsen. “In particular, CCM would like to thank Senator Galgiani and Assemblymember (Devon) Mathis for championing the bill and communicating to their urban colleagues the seriousness of this issue to all citrus trees in California.”

The grower-funded Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Program was created through legislation in 2009 and authorized an assessment on growers. Growers have since invested over $100 million into the program, over 95 percent of which go to trapping, treatments and surveys in urban areas in order to stop ACP and HLB from devastating the California citrus industry as it has in other parts of the country and world. 

Houtby said the extra funds will be used to expand the current program to survey areas where HLB was found and to cover the cost of additional treatments in those areas. 

The program receives federal funding to augment HLB detection analyses and public communications efforts. The governor and legislature, however, have repeatedly denied industry requests for state funding.  

“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,” commented Nelsen. “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. California still has an opportunity to stop HLB, but the state must be a partner if we are to be successful.”

California Citrus Mutual is currently seeking state funding in the 2017-18 budget.

“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,” said Nelsen.

Houtby said there have not been any significant finds of psyllids so far this year in Tulare County and no psyllids have been found in Madera County in more than a year.

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