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US (CA): Local farmers on the lookout for citrus pest

Steve Murray says he is closely watching his 20 acres of citrus at Murray Family Farms in east Bakersfield. He's looking for the Asian Citrus Psyllid, or ACP that was found in Tulare County last Friday.

It is a tiny insect from Asia that lives on tree leaves and spreads a disease called "citrus greening" that kills citrus trees and turns the fruit green.

"The citrus psyllid is huge, and it's only a matter of time before it gets here," Murray says. “It’s already spread throughout Southern California, when it gets here, everybody’s going to have to spray.”

The Kern County Agriculture Commissioner’s Office has pest traps set up across Kern County. The pest is more likely to be found in someone's back yard than a farm that uses pesticides regularly. That is why biologists advise people to not take fruit from trees out of Southern California counties.

“If they grab some fruit and have some leaves on that fruit and then bring it back up here, unknowingly, they could be bringing eggs or nymphs of the actual adult insect with them," says agricultural biologist Michelle Redstone. “As the citrus tree grows out and becomes bigger, it gets these real bright yellow-green shoots, and that’s where these insects like to go.”

Biologists ask homeowners with citrus trees to monitor their fruit. Jack Winter of Westchester has an orange tree he says has been in back yard for more than 50 years. Winter says he gives the fruit to people as Christmas gifts and can’t imagine not having the tree.

“Any pest sounds like a big problem,” Winter says. “That’s not cool, we have to find a serious solution for that don't we?”

It could take about four years for a citrus grower to notice their trees are affected by the greening disease. Humans can't be affected by it, so if you eat a citrus fruit with the disease, it will only taste bitter and be discolored.

All citrus psyllids don’t carry the disease. The pest only gets the disease when it feeds on a tree that already has it.

Citrus growers say they're going to have to be more aggressive with spraying their fruit at a time when most growers stopped using as many pesticides. If local plants get the disease, it could kill our citrus industry and prices would skyrocket.

“I think the industry will sustain itself through this,” Murray says. “But they'll end up using more insecticides and they will cause some death."

The disease has decimated citrus crops in Florida, Georgia and other parts of the world. There are no sightings of the pest in Kern County, and there is only one case of the citrus disease in California that was discovered in Los Angeles County in March.

Kern County has 55,052 acres of citrus while Tulare County has 106,168 according to this year’s citrus acreage survey by the US Department of Agriculture.

Bob Blakely of California Citrus Mutual says although Southern California was hit hard with citrus pest, there are as many trees in back yards there as there are in commercial grows in the San Joaquin Valley.

If you think you've seen the insect, call the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s pest hotline at 1-800-491-1899.


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