Florida growers may be battling laurel wilt disease, but they aren’t beaten by it.
“It’s not welcome news by any means, but it isn’t this devastating, traumatic thing that will destroy the avocado industry,” said Jonathan Crane, tropical fruit crop specialist for the Tropical Research & Education Center at the University of Florida.
Growers and researchers throughout Florida have been preparing for a positive finding of the disease since 2006, according to Crane.
He’s grateful for the support he’s seen from growers and the community as they continue to fight this problem.
“I feel fortunate that the industry has dedicated itself to trying to detect the disease and then taking action when they find it,” he said.
Crane says research has been one of the industry’s best weapons for fighting laurel wilt.
“We have learned a tremendous amount about the insect and the disease, and there are short-term and long-term strategies in development.”
“It’s important that people remember this was a foreign, exotic problem, and we were starting from zero. In order to figure out how to manage it, we have to learn the biology,” Crane said.
Chemicals are being tested for short-term treatment while natural repellents, fungicide treatments, trap and kill methods and even the introduction of a natural enemy to the redbay ambrosia beetle are being considered as possibilities for long-term control options.
“We’re also screening the various avocado varieties for tolerance and resistance,” he said.
Aerial surveys recently were implemented to detect suspicious-looking trees.
“Those are extremely effective because when you’re walking and looking up, it’s easy to miss. From above, it’s easier to pinpoint wilt,” said Denise Feiber, public information director for the Division of Plant Industry at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Once the symptoms are seen from above, samples can be located and taken from the ground in order to test the tree.
Feiber says reaching out to the community is one of the main tools to fight the disease.
The division tries to educate people to not move firewood because it might be contaminated and to buy trees only from registered nurseries. The division also sponsors a “Save the Guac” informative website that gives out free bumper stickers.
“We’ve been pushing this for several years, but it’s hard to convince people their actions have these consequences,” she said.
The department also offers a toll-free report line for people to call if they suspect they might own an infected tree.
“People do call. They aren’t frequent, but when they do we can go out and check them or have them submit a sample to be evaluated,” Feiber said.
Growers are getting involved in the effort to stop the spread of the disease, from serving on advisory committees to training work crews to recognize the symptoms.
Charlie Caves, packinghouse manager for New Limeco LLC, Princeton, Fla., said the company has distributed laminated photos of what the disease does to a tree in order to ensure everyone in the grove is looking for those symptoms.
“The beetle hole is the size of the end of a paper clip, so it’s hard to try to find that,” Caves said.
The company also has trained workers in the proper way to take a sample for testing.
“You can’t do it by the leaves, roots, or bark. You have to hatchet past the bark to get a good sample in order for a lab to test it,” he said.
Caves said the company is committed to doing what they can to help control efforts.
“We’re taking it seriously.”
Feiber also reports positive grower support of efforts such as the Laurel Wilt Working Group, formed in 2009 when the disease first appeared in Florida.
The group meets every couple of months, as needed, to look at reports from researchers about various topics such as the ambrosia beetle, what types of chemicals might be effective, and if it’s economical to treat all the trees.
Crane is pleased with the support and reaction he’s seen from growers.
He meets with growers two to four times a month and with the Florida Avocado Administrative Committee monthly.
“I don’t hear panic or fear,” Crane said. “I hear concern and the desire to move forward and figure this out. We need to continue to keep working together to find solutions, and I’m very positive about that.”