The HLB find rattled California’s commercial citrus industry; a $2 billion industry with about 700,000 acres of citrus statewide (2010 figure).

“The HLB find in the L.A. basin was a game changer for the commercial citrus industry,” Severns said. “We came face-to-face with the realization the disease has the potential to completely wipe out the citrus industry. HLB is a potential death sentence.”

No further cases have been found in California — residential or commercial citrus. HLB has not been detected in Arizona.

Despite the initial shock, Severns remains bullish and is backing up his optimism with his pocketbook. Instead of sitting on the fence waiting to see if HLB gains a foothold, Severns intends to plant 10 to 20 acres of Cara Cara orange nursery stock on his farm next spring.

Severns’ optimism is partially based on his knowledge of the California citrus industry. He serves as vice-chairman of California Citrus Mutual, a non-profit organization whose goal is to improve the bottom line for its 1,400 citrus-grower members.

Severns also wears the hat of secretary-treasurer of the California Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Committee. The committee was formed last year after the California legislature passed and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Assembly Bill 281 into law — legislation to add claws to the fight against ACP-HLB.

The committee has a war chest this year of about $16 million; funds collected from growers through a mandatory 7-cent-per-citrus-carton assessment.

Beyond these volunteer positions, Severns’ full-time job is general manager of the Orange Cove – Sanger Citrus Association’s packinghouse cooperative in Orange Cove. He is heavily engaged daily with citrus growers, pest control advisers, industry experts, and others.

California’s citrus industry is a large player covering 270,000 acres. It ranks second behind Florida in U.S. citrus production. California growers produce nearly one-quarter of the nation’s citrus, including 80 percent of the nation’s supply of fresh-market oranges and lemons, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Another reason for Severns’ bullish attitude is the California citrus industry has learned volumes of information from Florida’s ACP-HLB experience — its correct decisions, mistakes, and lessons learned the hard way. Severns has made several trips of Florida where leaders have willingly shared valuable information.

“Florida growers said you must control the bug to keep the disease from spreading,” Severns explained. “If we greatly limit the insect movement, we will impede the spread of the disease.”

California and Arizona have an advantage in the ACP-HLB fight that no other citrus-growing region in the world has had — time to prepare for the showdown.

Fight and detection preparation includes a wide variety of efforts including GPS-based insect trapping, delimitation, HLB checks on captured psyllids by the CRB laboratory in Riverside, and others.

A key to the ACP-HLB fight is ‘in the grove’ lookouts. Growers and pest control advisers routinely check groves for psyllids and suspicious-looking trees.

As a grower himself, Severns takes this responsibility personally.

“I have a responsibility on my farm to my neighbors, the industry, and to myself to be on a vigilant lookout for the pest and disease. HLB is a potential death sentence for this industry. Growers and packers — small and large — are equally engaged to report any suspected problems.”

Agricultural associations and government entities have proactive policies in place. The California-based Sunkist Growers Inc. citrus cooperative, which the Orange Cove - Sanger Citrus Association is a member, requires an orchard with a psyllid be treated with insecticide before the fruit is picked and moved to the packinghouse. Likewise, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) will immediately remove every HLB-infected tree. No exceptions. CDFA carried this out when the HLB-infected tree was found in the L.A. area. Rapid tree removal reduces disease spread.

Severns urges citrus growers and homeowners to be pro-active on ACP and HLB. Suspicious-looking insects, trees, and fruit should be reported immediately to their county Agricultural Commissioner Office.

CDFA’s Report-A-Pest hotline phone number is (800) 491-1899.

cblake@farmpress.com