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Huanglongbing disease raps on Western citrus’ front door

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  • When HLB disease rears its ugly head in the West, years of planning by the Western citrus industry should pay off.

I am a classic rock music fanatic after growing up in the 1970s and working for several years at alternative rock and commercial Top 40 radio stations during my college years in Mississippi.  

One Monday night, country music legend Glen Campbell of “Rhinestone Cowboy” fame rode in his bus down Main Street in front of the radio station in Columbus, Miss., in route for an evening concert. My second-by-second live accounts filled the radio waves welcoming Campbell to this far-from-exciting town. The sidewalks had officially rolled up two hours earlier.

Another great song comes to mind. 1970s’ rock musician Dave Edmonds performed the song, “I Hear You Knocking” which also included the infamous words “but you can’t come in.”

In everyday life, a sudden knock at your front door in the evening brings a sudden mix of emotions - anticipation and panic; and not knowing if it’s a good neighbor, a Boy Scout selling popcorn, or perhaps a police officer delivering bad news.

The recent news out of Texas on the first find of citrus greening disease in a commercial orange orchard was a panicked, but expected knock on the door for Lone Star State citrus growers. Citrus greening, known technically as Huanglongbing disease (HLB), is a deadly disease primarily vectored by the Asian citrus psyllid (ACP).

HLB is the worst citrus disease in the world.  HLB kills every citrus tree it infects and causes fruit from the infected tree to taste extremely sour. Some say the fruit juice takes like kerosene. The fruit is unmarketable.

HLB was first found in the U.S. in Florida. The psyllid was first identified there in 1998 with HLB detected in 2005. The pest and disease are in Mexico and marching ever closer to the U.S. border with Arizona and California.

During the 2009 annual meeting of the Pacific Branch of the Entomological Society of America, University of Florida entomologist Michael Rogers spoke to California citrus leaders on the impact of the psyllid-disease combo to Florida’s citrus industry.

Rogers said many “mistakes” were made by the Florida citrus industry; noting that HLB was initially placed on the backburner since the industry was fighting a major battle with citrus canker disease at the time.

As western citrus leaders now profess, it is a matter of when - not if - HLB is found in Western citrus orchards.

The psyllid first appeared in California in August 2008 in San Diego County and then flew westward and north. The ACP is now knocking at the door of California’s San Joaquin Valley; the state’s major citrus production belt.

At stake is the Golden State’s fresh citrus industry valued at nearly $2 billion annually.

In Arizona, the psyllid was first found in Yuma County in October 2009. Subsequent finds were found in Yuma County, except for one recent psyllid intercepted near the U.S.-Mexico border crossing at Nogales (Santa Cruz County).

In the West, HLB may already be present, but not identified as it takes several years after infection before tree symptoms appear (yellowed shoots, leaf mottle, and small upright leaves).

When HLB rears its ugly head in the West, years of planning by the Western citrus industry should pay off.

Organizations including the Citrus Research Board, California Citrus Quality Council, University of California, University of Arizona, California Citrus Mutual, California Citrus Nursery Society, and others have performed yeoman’s work in preparation for the dreaded HLB.

While Florida’s citrus industry made errors, the Western states have learned from Florida’s hard-learned lessons. This will help.

An informed Western citrus industry has prepared for the disease's sudden sharp rap on the door. However, the disease will still shock the citrus industry, despite its preparation, as the industry fights for its very survival. 

cblake@farmpress.com

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