California’s citrus industry is about to step up the fight against its major threat: huanglongbing, also known as citrus greening disease.

In the fall, a new $8 million industry-funded facility dedicated to research on HLB is scheduled to open at the University of California-Riverside.

The Biosafety Level 3 plant facility in Riverside will draw on the citrus pest, disease and breeding expertise of local and international scientists and should enable research on the Asian citrus psyllid and huanglongbing that previously couldn’t be done in Southern California, said Joel Nelsen, president of the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.

“I think it’s an indication as to how strongly the industry feels,” Nelsen said. “They have to stay ahead of an HLB infestation.”

Nelsen said he hopes the center is open by the end of October, so scientists can do “California-specific” work on the bacteria that, previously, had been done only in Florida.

HLB already has spread across Florida but has not yet reached any commercial groves in California.

“We’re going to get a head start and try to accomplish that before the crisis hits us,” Nelsen said.

The center has run into delays related to construction issues but now is progressing, Nelsen said.

“We’re bullish that we’re going to have a Christmas tree in December,” he said.


HLB in California

HLB has been found in residential trees in Southern California, and state agriculture officials have taken steps to control the movement of the Asian citrus psyllid, said Bob Blakely, vice president of the California Citrus Mutual.

“Tarping rules went in last spring, and we have things in the works that growers will be able to clean the fruit before it leaves the grove to remove the potential of psyllids moving from one area to another,” he said.

Infected trees are removed as soon as presence of HLB is confirmed, Blakely said.

“It’s the nature of that disease; it lays there dormant so long and then it starts to manifest itself,” he said.

The closest the disease has come to commercial groves has been Riverside, Calif., Blakely noted.

“But they’re continuing to find them in that area from Hacienda Heights to the Anaheim area,” he said. “I’m fearful we’re going to find more (infected) trees, not less. We’re encouraging homeowners to treat trees. Growers are working to keep psyllid populations low. We’re trying to hold it off as long as we can until scientists come up with a solution.”

The new research center will be a much-needed tool to combat the spread of HLB, said Randy Jacobson, sales manager with Orange Cove, Calif.-based Cecelia Packing Corp.

“California has been very proactive, aggressive in dealing with this disease and the insect that carries it,” he said.

Meantime, growers are doing everything they can to protect their groves, said Jeff Olsen, president of grower-shipper Visalia, Calif.-based Chuck Olsen Co.

“We’re all working hard together to track, and the Florida Department of Agriculture is working with our California Department (of Food and) Agriculture to give us some preventative measures, whether spraying or whatever, doing due diligence in orchards to see if you find anything of that nature,” Olsen said. “As far as keeping (psyllids) out, it’s a pretty tough task. Everybody’s keeping their eye out and working hard to see if anything is starting anywhere.”

The challenge is still more difficult for organic citrus growers, said Steve Taft, president of Temecula, Calif.-based organic citrus grower-shipper Eco-Farm Corp.

“It’s a real dicey game because the industry is wanting people to spray all the time and organic guys are not interested in spraying,” said Taft, whose operation grows primarily avocados and relies mostly on other growers for its citrus.

Taft said he hopes the new research center will be as helpful to organic growers as to those who grow conventionally.

“Hopefully they come up with stuff for organic people to use, as well,” he said.

Tom Mulholland, CEO of Orange Cove, Calif.-based Mulholland Citrus, said the center will play a key role in keeping HLB at bay.

“What we’re focusing on is partnering with scientists and global researchers to make sure we’re supporting them in their effort to slow the spread of this disease and develop detection and preemptive programs. That’s the only way we can combat the inevitable movement of the disease,” he said.