The Fight Against the Asian Citrus Psyllid

California Citrus Mutual on the Fight Against the Asian Citrus Psyllid and HLB

By Laurie Greene, Editor

On Saturday, June 4, 2016, Patrick Cavanaugh, California Ag Today’s farm news director, hosted iHeart Media’s Ag Life Weekend show on “Power Talk 96.7 FM Fresno and 1400 AM Visalia stations, sitting in for broadcaster Rich Rodriguez. Cavanaugh’s invited guests included Alyssa Houtby, director of public affairs, and Chris Stambach, director of industry relations for the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, to discuss the status of the state’s citrus industry amidst the ACP and HLB Infestation.Ag Life Weekend

The Asian Citrus Psyllid (ACP), certainly the number one pest for California citrus, can spread a bacterium known as Huanglongbing (HLB) that is fatal to citrus trees. As of 2016, 22 trees in the state have been infected with the fatal disease and had to be destroyed. The entire citrus industry of California has been and continues to be concerned that the ACP could take down the citrus industry, as it has in Florida.

Alyssa Houtby explained that the fight against ACP in California “is going well, we hope. The Florida citrus industry has been completely decimated by HLB; an estimated 90 percent of their acreage is infested with this disease.”

Asian Citrus Psyllid Evidence on New Growth (Source: California Ag Today
Asian Citrus Psyllid Evidence on New Growth (Source: California Ag Today)

“Here in California,” Houtby continued, “we saw it crop up in residential citrus before we saw it in commercial citrus. All of the HLB finds, to date, have been in the Los Angeles Basin.” Houtby said they are working diligently to keep the psyllid population down to decrease the exposure of trees to HLB.

The California citrus industry spends approximately $15 million annually on an ACP assessment program, which includes extensive public outreach. Part of the research entails trapping the pest, conducting survey work in the regions in question, applying treatments in residential areas, and managing a delimitation survey around the area of Los Angeles where the disease has populated.

“That means that we’re scouting very consistently,” explained Houtby, “looking for other trees with the disease and pulling those trees out as soon as we find them. We are doing everything we can here in California to keep the pest and disease from spreading—now that we have it,” she noted.

Alyssa Houtby, director of public affairs, California Citrus Mutual
Alyssa Houtby, director of public affairs, California Citrus Mutual

“The California industry has always been one to use a proactive approach,” Houtby elaborated. “We saw what happened in Florida, and we realized really early on that we couldn’t stand by and wait for this disease to find us. We had to actively go look for it and find it—before it found commercial citrus—and we’ve done that.” Regarding the 22 trees in the state that have been destroyed thus far, Houtby said, “It could be a lot worse if we weren’t as proactive as we are.”

When locating a positive ACP find in a residential area, Houtby noted, generally speaking, homeowners have mostly been compliant. “There are pockets in this state where folks don’t like government coming in, knocking on their door and asking to spray their trees with pesticides. We understand that. It’s an opt-in/opt-out scenario here. We’re not forcing homeowners in most cases to treat their trees.”

Chris Stambach
Chris Stambach, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual

“But that’s a different situation if HLB is present,” she emphasized. “Then we do. We get a warrant, and we go in and treat the surrounding trees. If we’re treating in response to an ACP find, homeowners can opt out, but overwhelmingly, they don’t. They support our program. They understand that citrus is a part of the California heritage, they like their citrus trees, and they want to keep them in their yards. They understand that the alternative to not treating is that tree will eventually die if it becomes infected. We’ve worked really hard to communicate to the general public about the seriousness of this issue. We’re pleased with the results.” Houtby said.

Chris Stambach discussed the importance of homeowners having a general understanding of the ACP, so if they find something unusual in their citrus tree, they know to call the local ag commissioner.

Stambach detailed ACP and HLB specifications to increase homeowners’ understanding about their beloved citrus trees. “HLB is symptomatic, but it takes a long time for those symptoms to show up in the tree,” said Stambach. “You really have to know what you’re looking for because some fertilizer deficiency issues in the tree will mimic what HLB looks like.”

“Though the ACP is a really tiny little bug, there are some key signs the public can look for,” explained Stambach. “You want to look for that psyllid and the little tubules it excretes on the new flush of growth—pretty much right there at the end of the terminals where all that new growth comes in the springtime and in the fall. That’s key to California, because there are only certain times of the year when that ACP is actively feeding on the citrus tree.”

California has a real benefit over the Sunshine State, where they have to spray 12 times a year to keep the psyllids at bay. “It hasn’t been effective for [Florida],” noted Stambach. “We had a couple of growers out this last winter to our Citrus Showcase. They planted new trees, 4 years old, and although they spray 12 times a year, their orchards are 100% infected with HLB. That’s the devastation that this insidious disease can bring. It’s really difficult to get your hands around it because it takes so long to be able to detect it.”

Another benefit for California citrus, according to Houtby, is, “We have a lot of areas in the state where we don’t have to spray at all because we can use beneficial insects. That’s just the great part about farming in California.”

Asian Citrus Psyllic Yellow Trap 2 (Source: Citrus Pest & Disease Prevention Program)
Asian Citrus Psyllic Yellow Trap (Source: Citrus Pest & Disease Prevention Program)

Houtby and her team often look to Florida for ideas and recommendations on what has worked for them, what hasn’t and what citrus growers here can do to prevent the disease from taking hold of their citrus. She clarified that 90 percent of the Florida citrus market is used for juice production; whereas, California is a “fresh-oriented industry, meaning that over 90 percent of our product goes into the fresh market.”

Although California citrus looks for recommendations from Florida, “here in California, there are a lot of things that we can’t afford to do because of the [fresh] market that we’re serving,” said Houtby.”  That is what we’re fighting so hard to maintain because we cannot sustain as long as Florida has; we don’t have the luxury of sending a bad-looking piece of fruit into the marketplace like Florida can, because they just juice it. Knowing that, we’re working really hard to never get to the point that Florida has reached.”

As if the dire situation in Florida couldn’t be any worse, they battled with “another deadly bacterial-based citrus disease, citrus canker, brought in from the far reaches of the world,” Stambach said. “That’s a concern we always have with importing citrus. When we import Argentine lemons, for example, we risk our domestic plant health by exposing orchards to a lot of plant diseases they have that we don’t. We want to keep those out of our country,” noted Stambach.

Abandoned citrus trees also pose problems for the industry; they can be sanctuaries for ACP. “If those trees are dead, that’s not a problem. They may look bad, but if they are not living, that’s not a problem. It’s when those trees aren’t cared for, aren’t sprayed in a normal routine, and there is a flush of new growth, the trees provide a sanctuary for the psyllids,” he said.

Abandoned Citrus
Abandoned Citrus

“And ACP are very good at finding citrus. They’ll target the perimeters of new growth on the very first citrus they find. Boom, they’re right on it,” he noted.

“Those abandoned groves create a real problem, particularly when they’re in close proximity to other commercial acreage or even homeowners,” he said. Neglected neighborhood citrus trees can become ACP sanctuaries. “ACPs will feed on them and move on to another tree, and feed there,” Stambach explained. “All that time, if an ACP is infected with the HLB bacteria, it will spread that disease, with a latency period of 2 to 5 years.”

Stambach and his team are working on a critical program in Southern California to remove abandoned citrus trees. “Sometimes it’s just getting a hold of the landowner and making them aware of the situation,” he said. “Our county ag commissioners are really key in contacting those people. We’ve had growers go in and spray their neighbor’s orchard to help them out. There are a lot of different ways to attack that problem.”

Compared to counties in the San Joaquin Valley, Riverside and Ventura Counties typically have a big-ag urban interface, which means there is a lot of acreage intermixed with home sites—small homes with citrus trees. Stambach said, “It’s not really commercial production, but it’s a significant amount of acreage with a number of trees that don’t get treated.”

“We’ve gotten some support from some of our partners in the chemical industry. Bayer CropScience has stepped up and worked with us to put together a program. We’re really happy. We’re working hard to take [ACP and HLB] out.” Stambach said.

“Fresno has even found ACPs in residential areas,” commented Houtby on the Central Valley situation. “ACPs are endemic in Southern California, but we’re still at a point in the Central Valley at which we can control these populations and knock them down really quickly when they arrive here.”CA Citrus Mutual

Houtby points to the Central Valley’s vulnerability when citrus plant material is moved over the grapevine or from the Central Coast. “We ask that homeowners, and the citrus industry as well, not move plant material out of Southern California into the Central Valley,” she stated. “The psyllid lives on that plant material and not on the fruit. If you’re going to buy a citrus tree, buy it at a local plant nursery or a local Home Depot or Lowe’s. Don’t buy it in Southern California and drive it to the Central San Joaquin Valley,” she urged.

“Our biggest task for homeowners is that they cooperate when the California Department of Food and Agriculture knocks on the door and wants to look at their trees,” Stambach said. “That is the best way you can help us win this battle against the ACP.”

Homeowners can learn how to protect their citrus trees at:

CaliforniaCitrusThreat.org

U.S. Department of Agriculture

California Department of Food and Agriculture

University of California Cooperative Extension

Contributors to this report include Patrick Cavanaugh and Emily McKay Johnson.

Drought’s impact on crops

Source: Dale Kasler; The Sacramento Bee

It’s harvest time in much of California, and the signs of drought are almost as abundant as the fruits and nuts and vegetables.

One commodity after another is feeling the impact of the state’s epic water shortage. The great Sacramento Valley rice crop, served in sushi restaurants nationwide and exported to Asia, will be smaller than usual. Fewer grapes will be available to produce California’s world-class wines, and the citrus groves of the San Joaquin Valley are producing fewer oranges. There is less hay and corn for the state’s dairy cows, and the pistachio harvest is expected to shrink.

Even the state’s mighty almond business, which has become a powerhouse in recent years, is coming in smaller than expected. That’s particularly troubling to the thousands of farmers who sacrificed other crops in order to keep their almond orchards watered.

While many crops have yet to be harvested, it’s clear that the drought has carved a significant hole in the economy of rural California. Farm income is down, so is employment, and Thursday’s rain showers did little to change the equation.

An estimated 420,000 acres of farmland went unplanted this year, or about 5 percent of the total. Economists at UC Davis say agriculture, which has been a $44 billion-a-year business in California, will suffer revenue losses and higher water costs – a financial hit totaling $2.2 billion this year.

Rising commodity prices have helped cushion at least some of the pain, but more hurt could be on the way. With rivers running low and groundwater overtaxed, the situation could get far worse if heavy rains don’t come this winter.

“Nobody has any idea how disastrous it’s going to be,” said Mike Wade of Modesto, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, an advocacy group based in Sacramento. “Is it going to create more fallowed land? Absolutely. Is it going to create more groundwater problems? Absolutely.

“Another dry year, we don’t know what the result is going to be, but it’s not going to be good,” Wade said.

Central Valley residents don’t have to look far to see the effects. Roughly one-fourth of California’s rice fields went fallow this year, about 140,000 acres worth, according to the California Rice Commission, leaving vast stretches of the Sacramento Valley brown instead of their customary green.

“We’d all rather be farming, as would everybody who depends on us – the truck drivers, the parts stores, the mills,” said Mike Daddow, a fourth-generation rice grower in the Nicolaus area of southern Sutter County.

Daddow opted to fallow 150 of his family’s 800 acres this year and counts himself lucky. “We did better than a lot of people,” he said.

Last week, Daddow was gearing up for the harvest, which begins Monday. It was pleasantly warm, but the faint smoky smell from the King fire was another unwelcome reminder of the parched season of discontent.

“It affects me, yes, I will have less profit,” he said. “It affects hourly workers. If there’s no ground to till, I can’t hire them to do anything.”

Daddow hired just six workers during spring planting, instead of the usual nine or 10.

Calculating total job losses related to the drought is difficult, especially in an industry in which many workers are transient and much of the work is part time. The state Employment Development Department, drawing from payroll data, said farm employment has dropped by just 2,700 jobs from a year ago, a decline of less than 1 percent.

But experts at UC Davis say they believe the impact is more severe. Richard Howitt, professor emeritus of agricultural economics, said he believes the drought ultimately will erase 17,000 jobs. He bases that, in part, on the increased number of families seeking social services.

The human cost shows up at rural food banks, which are reporting higher demand for assistance from farmworkers and their families. At the Bethel Spanish Assembly of God, a church in the Tulare County city of Farmersville, the number of families receiving food aid every two weeks has jumped from about 40 last year to more than 200. Farmersville, a city of 10,000, is at the heart of a region that grows an array of crops, from lemons to pistachios to grapes.

“Some of them are working … but they’re not putting in the hours,” said the Rev. Leonel Benavides, who is also Farmersville’s mayor. Thanks to state-funded drought relief, the church has been able to meet the increased demand – and then some.

“Instead of just two boxes, we give them three,” Benavides said.

The effect goes beyond the farm fields. N&S Tractor, which sells Case IH brand farm equipment throughout the Central Valley, has seen business tail off as farmers conserve cash.

“It’s not just our dealership,” said N&S marketing director Tim McConiga Jr., who works out of the company’s sales office in Glenn County. “You talk to John Deere, you talk to Caterpillar, everyone is going to tell you their numbers are down.”

The drought has had varying impacts on different areas of the state, depending in part on who has first dibs on the dwindling water supply. Some growers have stronger water rights than others. Generally speaking, Sacramento Valley farmers have had it easier than their counterparts south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where the cutbacks have been more severe.

The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts are delivering about 40 percent of their usual amounts. The Merced Irrigation District is far worse off, as are many of the West Side areas supplied by the federal Central Valley Project. The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts have not had large cutbacks, but leaders worry about a dry 2015.

Regardless of geography, many growers have had to make difficult choices about which fields to water, leaving portions of their farms idle.

Bruce Rominger of Winters, chairman of the California Tomato Growers Association, made the decision to push ahead with his tomato crop at the expense of other commodities. With tomatoes selling for a robust $83 a ton, vs. about $70 a year ago, it was a matter of simple economics.

“Other crops are not getting the water,” said Rominger, who owns and leases a total of about 5,000 acres. “We sacrificed some alfalfa, we sacrified some sunflowers, we sacrificed quite a bit of rice. We fallowed 25 percent of our farm.”

Much of the processing tomato crop goes to canneries in Modesto, Oakdale, Escalon and Los Banos.

Choosing to focus on one crop doesn’t guarantee victory. Even the $4 billion almond industry – the great success story of California agriculture in recent years – could not be shielded from the drought’s effects.

As worldwide demand for almonds has boomed, prices have soared past $4 a pound and farmers have responded with more supply. Orchard plantings have continued unabated, even this year. With water supplies running low, many almond growers set aside other commodities to keep their orchards going.

Even so, the almond yield declined. Blue Diamond Growers, the big farmer-owner almond cooperative based in Sacramento, predicts that production in California will fall this year to around 1.9 billion pounds when the harvest is complete in a few weeks. That compares with the 2 billion pounds harvested last year and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s forecast, released in late June, that this year’s crop would total 2.1 billion pounds.

What went wrong? Almonds are one of the thirstiest crops around, and there wasn’t enough water to generate big yields.

“I don’t think there was anyone who used as much (water) as they normally do,” said Dave Baker, director of member relations for Blue Diamond. The hot spells in June and July “stressed the trees even further” and curtailed production, he said.

With California accounting for 80 percent of global almond supply, Baker said he’s worried about being able to meet demand. “We have a growth industry,” he said.

Blue Diamond has plants also in Salida and Turlock, and several smaller processors are in or near Stanislaus County.

The lack of water last spring likely also has stunted navel orange production in the San Joaquin Valley, where harvest is expected to begin in a few weeks.

“We’re expecting some kind of damage to the crop,” said Alyssa Houtby, spokeswoman for California Citrus Mutual, a grower-owned association based in Tulare County. “We didn’t have the water in those key months.”

Economist Vernon Crowder, a senior vice president with agricultural lender Rabobank, said farmers went into this difficult season with a couple of advantages: Most commodity prices have risen in recent years, and most growers are in pretty good financial shape as a result. But another dry year could bring more serious hardship, he said.

“They have a little bit of cash to withstand this,” Crowder said. “They’re going to get through it. The real question is what is going to happen next year.”

Similar questions are being raised in the California wine industry, which produces much of its volume in the Modesto area. The last two grape harvests were extraordinarily strong, leaving an overhang of product that should help offset the slight declines in this year’s harvest. “Pricing should be steady,” said industry consultant Robert Smiley, a professor emeritus of business at UC Davis.

That doesn’t eliminate fears that next season’s crop could shrink substantially. Craig Ledbetter of Vino Farms, a Lodi grape producer, had enough water this year but said he’s afraid he’ll receive “curtailment notices” from the state signaling significant cutbacks in next season’s water supply.

“I’m very nervous about water,” said Ledbetter, who also raises wine grapes in Sonoma County. “If we don’t have a rainy winter, I can pretty much guarantee we’re all going to be receiving curtailment notices. If that happens, we’re going to be concerned about keeping the vine alive rather than harvesting it.”