The Bakersfield Californian Citrus industry will ‘buy time’ until researchers can halt devastating, insect-borne disease

The fate of Kern County’s $900 million-a-year citrus industry may come down to whether costly and potentially controversial efforts will stave off a tiny, winged pest long enough for researchers to find a cure for the devastating disease it has already carried from Florida to Southern California.

Among the touchier existing measures proposed for wider deployment in residental areas are the use of strong pesticides and removal of backyard citrus trees.

Local growers sounded alarms Thursday at an informational meeting focused on a variety of measures for containing the Asian citrus psyllid’s southeasterly march through Bakersfield toward some of Kern’s biggest commercial production areas.

“Basically, the whole strategy right now is to try to buy time,” grower Steve Murray said, echoing the statements of other growers in attendance.

The battle involves not only careful compliance with local quarantines, including the one now comprising virtually all of Bakersfield, but also a veritable arsenal of pesticides ranging from mild to harsh. In Los Angeles County, authorities have even deployed parasitic wasps that feed on the psyllid.

The Kern County Department of Agriculture and Measurement Standards offers information about the Asian citrus psyllid online, including a map of local quarantines, online at
Growers who think they may have found a psyllid are urged to call the California Department of Food and Agriculture at 800-491-1899.

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A researcher at the University of California, Riverside, Beth Grafton-Cardwell, detailed the efficacy of various chemicals in use to control or, depending on conditions, attempt to eradicate the pest.

Some of these treatments could become the subject of conflict. While the citrus grower community has supported various efforts being used to fight the psyllid, she said, there is a chance of “public outcry” based partly on environmental concerns.

Despite that risk, Grafton-Cardwell said the pesticides are “essential if we are to stop the disease from spreading.”

She showed photos and spoke of damage caused by the bacterial disease known as Huanglongbing: asymmetric and bitter fruit, gradual defoliation and, within about five years of a tree contracting the ailment, certain death.

Huanglongbing has not been found in California north of Los Angeles County. But the mottled-brown psyllid has recently been identified in many locations in Kern, triggering expansion of quarantines that have imposed special spraying regimens, trapping and fruit transportation restrictions in areas including Bakersfield, Taft and Wasco.

County Agricultural Commissioner Ruben Arroyo said the meeting was a response to growers asking how they can help fight the pest. He said the event was also a proactive step to protect Kern’s more than 64,000 citrus-bearing acres, about 3,500 of which are affected by the quarantine.

Among those hit hardest are nurseries supplying trees to commercial growers and retailers.

Gary Moles, general manager of Edison’s Willits & Newcomb nursery, said compliance with the quarantine has been expensive. Last year his company spent half a million dollars on a greenhouse to shelter half an acre’s worth of citrus trees because of the pest, he said, adding, ”it’s no longer business as usual.“

The cooperation of homeowners may be vital, not only in helping trap the pests and allowing spraying on their property but also abiding by quarantines’ limitations on transportation of fruit.

Authorities estimate about 60 percent of California’s citrus trees live in residential areas. If the disease turns up in backyards, that could require removing whole trees.

”This disease has the potential to change the landscape of California,“ said Grafton-Cardwell, the UC Riverside researcher.

She touched on some of the finer points of anti-psyllid strategy. Pointing to a map of the different quarantines in Southern and Central California, she cautioned against establishing one big quarantine, saying it would permit movement of infected citrus material from one end to another, which could spread the disease from L.A. County directly to Kern.

Dan Dreyer, a northern Tulare representative of the industry-funded Citrus Pest & Disease Prevention Program, said he shares the view that Huanglongbing’s arrival in Kern is inevitable. Asked whether measures in place are adequate, he said, ”it’s a start.“

”We have some great tools in place,“ he said. ”We just need to continue to emphasize the importance of preventing the movement of psyllids on people and equipment.“