SHERMAN OAKS, Calif. — The California and Arizona citrus industries remain on high alert as discoveries of the dreaded Asian citrus psyllid mount.
The psyllid isn’t just another pest growers have to deal with.
As Florida producers discovered, the bug can cause citrus greening — a disease known as huanglongbing or HLB — which quickly can devastate an orchard and now threatens Florida’s citrus industry.
Growers in California and Arizona are praying that the same thing won’t happen out West.
“This is the one disease that has the potential of absolutely destroying the whole industry,” said Mike Wootton, senior vice president for corporate relations and administration for Sunkist Growers Inc.
Wootton, along with other citrus industry leaders, has been actively involved with efforts to prevent the psyllid from becoming established in California and Arizona, thus keeping HLB at bay.
The industry’s immediate goal is to keep the pest under control while researchers look for a long-term solution — such as developing disease-resistant trees — that will put the brakes on HLB.
The disease already has shown up in Mexico, and Asian citrus psyllids have been detected in California along the border near San Diego and as far north as the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
Some disease-carrying psyllids have been detected in central California by dogs sniffing FedEx packages containing curry leaves shipped from India.
Fortunately, the infested psyllids were found and destroyed before they could cause any damage.
Some Central Valley growers have what may be a false sense of security because of rumors that the psyllid may not survive the region’s cold winters, but Wootton believes that’s wishful thinking.
“It’s gone over some pretty dry, arid, rough terrain, cold winters and hot summers,” he said. “I don’t see any likelihood of any climatic limitations at this point.”
“It’s probably the most serious threat we’ve ever encountered,” said Roy Bell, general manager at Cal Citrus Packing Co., Lindsay.
The disease moves so quickly that, although Florida lost 20% of its citrus trees in five years, the state could lose 80% in another five years if the disease isn’t slowed, he said.
The industry has known about HLB for years.
“It’s endemic in China,” Bell said.
That’s why that nation is not the competitive threat in citrus like it is in the apple and grape categories, he said.
Detecting Asian citrus psyllids and stopping citrus greening is a major priority for Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, said president Joel Nelsen.
The fact that psyllids have been detected and eradicated is good news and bad news, he said.
It’s bad that the pests have been spotted in California, but the fact that 92% of the property treatments so far have successfully eradicated the psyllids the first time “means the program we have in place is working,” he said.
While he laments the psyllid finds, Nelsen is pleased with the cooperation from the public and local, state and federal governments, and he lauded the investment the industry is making in public education and public relations efforts.
“I think its paying dividends,” he said. “I believe that we can defeat the challenge, but it’s going to take a lot of work.”
Wootton said the key to keeping HLB at bay is for the public to report findings in their back yards, and for growers to continue trapping, checking production areas for psyllids, keeping field bins clean, monitoring fruit movement and making sure they are not hauling host materials like leaves, stems or twigs.
“It’s all a matter of buying time until research can yield some ultimate solution to dealing with HLB,” he said.