The pain scale in dealing with citrus canker and greening runs on a bit of a sliding scale across the country, with the east side (Florida) suffering much more so than citrus-growing regions to the west (Texas, Arizona and California).
But concern remains high across the land.
“It could devastate the industry,” said Claire Smith, corporate communications director for Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, Calif. “State and federal governments are working with everybody in preventative measures and research.”
Canker, a bacterial disease that causes blemished fruit, first was detected in Florida in 1995 and was the target of an 11-year, $1.6 billion eradication program.
Most Florida citrus growers feel they have that disease under control today, if not completely conquered.
Much more insidious and severe an infection is huanglongbing, HLB, also known as citrus greening disease, first detected in Florida four years ago.
Infected trees produce bitter and misshapen fruit. The psyllid, a tiny insect, has been proven to carry the citrus greening bacteria.
“We’ve lost a lot of acreage to disease,” said Richard Kinney, president of Florida Citrus Packers Inc., Lakeland. “Psyllids are spreading disease. Millions are being spent on projects to get rid of it. We’re removing trees and trying to kill as many psyllids as possible.”
Psyllids have been detected in Texas, Arizona and California, but no disease has been found, at least in commercial groves.
Greening has, however, been recently found in west Mexico … and closer.
“We’ve found a few cases of ACP (Asian citrus psyllid) in back yards here and in Mexico,” said Mike Aguirre, general manager of the Yuma Mesa Fruit Growers Association, Yuma, Ariz.
The mere presence of psyllids in citrus groves has all growers, packers and shippers on edge.
“We’re all obviously concerned,” said Neil Galone, vice president of sales at Booth Ranches LLC, Orange Cove, Calif. “I haven’t heard of any instances in any commercial groves yet. We’re trying to learn from Florida Citrus Mutual. I wish it would go away. I was in Florida when canker was first discovered. I can say there hasn’t been much headway in dealing with it. It’s scary.”
John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, Mission, said a significant part of the issue is a federal government issue.
“Funding … to fight greening and canker has been quite satisfactory,” McClung said. “There’s been a significant effort in Texas and California to do survey work to find where psyllids are and the irradication of bacteria. Long term, it’s the biggest concern in the industry. But there’s a sizeable effort under way.”
Florida received a boost in 2009 when an embargo was lifted, allowing the state to ship citrus to other citrus-producing states, including California and Texas. Fruit shipping out of Florida must be disinfected, but non-commercial citrus can't leave the state. Most overseas markets remain off-limits, however.
“There are certain steps we’re taking to make sure the fruit being brought to the packing house is clean,” said Al Finch, director of marketing for Diversified Citrus Marketing, Lake Hamilton, Fla. “We’re following all protocols.”
David Mixon, senior vice president of Seald Sweet International, Vero Beach, Fla., said, “The good news is growers took a vote earlier in December and voted yes on funding — extra funding and taxation. It appears scientists have narrowed (greening) to one certain type of bacteria. The equation is being put together piece by piece, but the answer is not put together yet. We once thought canker was the end of the world, but now we can manage it. But with greening, there is no answer.”
(Note on correction: The article originally stated HLB had been detected in non-commercial trees in Arizona; the quote referrred to Asian citrus psyllid. Also, information on a 2009 decision to allow Florida citrus to other producing states has been corrected -- no canker-infected fruit can be shipped from the state.)