US (GA): Blueberry growers look to nip pest problem

A combination of factors, mostly owing to weather conditions, allowed the Spotted Wing Drosophilia pest to become noticeable in this year's Georgia blueberry crop. While the pest has yet to cause the sort of damage it's inflicted on other crops around the country, growers are taking the appearance of the pest as a serious problem that they need to control before it significantly affects their industry.

“We've encountered the pest, and we're fighting it as best we can,” said Joe Cornelius, chairman of the Georgia Blueberry Commission and president of J&B Blueberry Farms in Manor, Georgia. “We had some bad weather that helped create part of the issue, and now we're dealing with it.” He noted that the pest, which can cause significant damage to a variety of crops, especially soft-skinned fruit, had been seen in the state before, but it took the large amount of rain that growers saw this season for it to become an issue.

“We usually try to maintain a tight spray schedule, and with two or three applications we can usually deal with pests,” said Cornelius. “But with low temperatures and lots of rain this year, we couldn't get out there to spray, and that was part of the problem. We couldn't do preventative maintenance and we couldn't practice integrated pest management measures, so the pest got a foothold.” He added that, though it's unclear if the pest or heavy rains did most of the damage, combined with adverse weather, the pest may have caused losses of up to $25 million - so it's important that growers respond quickly before the issue gets worse.

“It's a challenge for all of us, and we're working diligently to confront it before it becomes a more serious issue,” said Mark Villata, executive director of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council. “We are looking for a solution that is both effective and practical. We need to find a way to stop the pest, and we must do it in a way that does not impact the quality of our product.” That includes consulting with experts and funding research to find ways to combat the pest, he added.

“Our industry is determined to bring the best experts available to bear on this problem now,” he said. “We want to do this before the pest can have a significant impact on either quality or product volume in our industry.” Although the potential damage the pest can cause has not been realized, growers are taking the issue seriously and they all agree action must be taken before it significantly alters their industry. While the exact course of action is still being contemplated, everyone agrees something must be done.

“We're willing to spend whatever it takes to combat and stop this problem before it becomes any more serious,” said Russ Goodman of Cogdell Berry Farm in southeast Georgia. “It's a problem, and a very important one, but we're beginning to do the research now to stop it before it overwhelms us.”

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