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Citrus growers focus on water, HLB

Regulators and researchers are stepping up efforts to find an insect that can spread a deadly disease that could cripple the billion-dollar-plus California citrus industry.

And a package of bills to address water needs for the state is likely to appear on the November ballot after years of efforts to forge coalitions that go beyond the agricultural community.

Speakers expressed cautious optimism on both hot button topics, which dominated the 2010 Citrus Showcase presented in Visalia by California Citrus Mutual.

In the face of threats from a deadly greening disease that has devastated groves in Florida and elsewhere, “we may be the last man standing for fresh citrus and possibly internationally,” said Ted Batkin, president of the California Citrus Research Board in Visalia.

Batkin said he believes California has an advantage in battling the disease threat because of “early detection and rapid response” to the Asian citrus psyllid that spreads the greening disease Huanglongbing.

Batkin was part of a panel that discussed the disease threat.

The showcase opened with another panel that addressed water issues during which George Soares, a Sacramento lobbyist, said enlisting a wide array of support that went beyond farmers – including “car dealers, doctors, teachers” – is a key to the California Legislature addressing water needs.

The Visalia event drew some 500 visitors and more than 70 exhibitors.

Batkin said the psyllid remains “an urban pest at the moment” but he added that trapping is also being done in commercial areas of the state that include California’s top citrus county, Tulare County.

He said a system has been developed that uses bar codes on trees so that “an almost instant map” can be generated to speed efforts at treatment and delimitation.

Batkin said a fact sheet on the disease and psyllid carries the alarming headline: “No more California citrus?” It’s what’s at stake if the disease and insect become established in the state.

He said the effort to reach out to the urban community involves using multiple languages and conveying the fact that the threat is not only to commercial growers, but also to homeowners with a single tree or two.

At the meeting, California Citrus Mutual honored Bob Wynn, who came out of retirement after 37 years with the California Department of Food and Agriculture to take on the role of coordinator for activities of the California Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Committee.

The committee was established as part of urgency legislation signed last October. The legislation levied a penny-per-carton assessment that began with the harvest of fruit in the fall and it’s aimed at fighting citrus-specific diseases.

Wynn said the committee’s members have been appointed, including chairman Nick Hill, vice president of Greenleaf Farms Inc. in Dinuba. Craig Armstrong, owner of Thermiculture Management in Thermal, is vice chairman, and Richard Bennett, president of Bennett Farms Inc. in Exeter, is secretary-treasurer.

The committee has already met twice in Bakersfield. Another meeting in Bakersfield is scheduled April 14.

James McFarlane, a Fresno County citrus grower who moderated the panel on greening, said he was among those who faced a steep learning curve on how real the threat is. He said he once thought “it will never get here. Then came the acceptance stage and the realization that it’s a clear and present danger. Death is standing at the door.”

McFarlane, general manager of Redbanks Farming Inc. in Clovis, is also a member of the state committee wrestling with how to address the threat.

Robert C. Leavitt, acting director of CDFA’s Plant Health and Pest Prevention Services, said surveys for the pest are under way in high risk locations that include airports and markets. If there is a psyllid find, trapping is increased in a radius of 800 meters. Treatment is conducted on all host plants in a radius of 400 meters.

Los Angeles County leads the state in the number of properties treated at 12,275 in a recent count. Large areas of Southern California are under quarantine and movement of nursery stock is closely regulated.

“Sixteen thousand square miles of California are under quarantine,” Leavitt said.

The battle to contain the threat is costly. “The cost of printing nursery shipping tags alone is $60,000,” Leavitt said.

Jim Cranney, president of the California Citrus Quality Council, said efforts are being made to work closely with the industry in Mexico, where both the pest and disease have been found.

“We’re trying to unify customs and border protection and surveillance,” he said, adding that the outreach extends beyond “bulk citrus” to include such events as Dia de los Muertos, All Saints Day, activities. He said monitoring is particularly active at borders with Arizona, Texas and California.

“We’ve had blitzes on packing lines to make sure no leaves are being moved,” he said. “And we train agents at the border on what the psyllid looks like and to be on the lookout for vegetation. We’re alerting passengers to avoid moving certain types of vegetation.”

Cranney flashed a slide that showed the challenge in treating for the pest in some places in Mexico, remote and nearly inaccessible citrus trees where backpack sprayers are used.

He said surveillance and treatment is especially active from Tijuana to 100 miles south in the Baja Peninsula and from Tijuana to 100 miles southeast. Where the greening disease has been found “1,000 miles away from the border with California,” he said, “it could have been there for as much as two years.”

It has taken three years to get groups with varying regional views on water “to start talking,” said Soares, managing partner of Kahn, Soares and Conway in Sacramento. He believes a key in coming up with a package of five bills to address water needs in the state is the idea of “a comprehensive approach” that includes a Bay-Delta conservation plan and Delta Stewardship Council.

Soares conceded it could be tough to get voters on board for a package that includes an $11 billion water bond during “a pocketbook year.” Among opponents are the state employees union and California Teachers Association. State budget problems have already brought employment cuts, and some may fear the bond measure will add to additional cutbacks.

“There’s a lot to love and lot not to love in this five-bill package,” said Glenn Farrel, government affairs manager for the Friant Water Authority. “This will evolve into who pays for what.”

Farrel said the stewardship council legislation “sets the stage for a process to ensure appropriate protections are in place for an alternate conveyance system around or through the Delta.” He said there are two bills that seek amendments to the package, including a provision for enforcement on water right penalties.

Tom Bohigian, Central Valley field representative for U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said he agreed with Soares that the comprehensive approach was best, an approach that dealt with “Delta interests, urban interests and the Sacramento Valley.”

“Ag is not just ag,” he said.

The East Side of the San Joaquin Valley, home to much of the state’s citrus production, has so far been spared much of the pain felt by growers on the Valley’s West Side. But there is concern that the statewide water crisis could spread to that region.

The National Academy of Sciences is evaluating biological opinions on salmon and the Delta smelt, Bohigian said, including stressors that range beyond pumping for agriculture and include waste water treatment plants and invasive species.

He did not speculate on what the academy’s findings might be.

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