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California Citrus tackles Huanglongbing from yard to farm


California doesn’t have citrus greening. It’s Huanglongbing.

“Once we began to learn what was going on in Florida, the severity of the situation, we recognized in California, given what was going on in Mexico that we were going to have a problem,” said Joel Nelsen, President and CEO, California Citrus Mutual. “We put together some focus groups with homeowners in Southern California, three different groups, and we said look we think we might have a problem coming our way from across the border. We are going to call it either yellow dragon disease, citrus greening, or Huanglongbing. How best do we sustain a program with you? They said ‘call it Huanglongbing, it scares the hell out of us.'”

As Nelsen points out that consistent communication with consumers is part of the reason the state has been successful in fighting off one of the most serious citrus plant diseases in the world. With more citrus trees residing in backyards than in California’s commercial industry, spending $1 million on a public awareness program isn’t overzealous, it’s a necessity.

“If we don’t continue to have that partnership with the homeowners, that disease will spread into the urban area and spill over to the production area,” Nelsen said.

Nelsen shared California Citrus Mutual’s progress on fighting the horrific disease during the panel discussion “Collaborating for Healthy Citrus” at the recent Bayer AgVocacy Forum in Anaheim, California. Besides public awareness, Nelsen said the state has also kept a close eye on Florida.

According to Dr. Harold Browning, Chief Operating Officer, Citrus Research and Development Foundation, since citrus greening first showed up in Florida in 2005, the disease has become widespread. In fact, Florida’s citrus crop is only a fourth of what it was 10 years ago.

Last year, Bayer and the Citrus Research and Development Foundation signed a research collaboration agreement to find an effective treatment against the bacterium Candidatus liberibacter, the causal agent of citrus greening. The partnership is financially supported by PepsiCo and The Coca-Cola Company, two leaders in the juice industry.

Dr. Tim Anglea, Global R&D Fellow, Citrus Science and Technology for The Coca-Cola Company said citrus greening has definitely affected Minute Maid, one of Coca-Cola’s billion dollar brands. The company has had to rely on imports from Brazil to sustain production and prices have continued to increase due to short supply.

That’s why after exchanging notes and despair with the Florida citrus industry, Nelsen said California growers recognized they needed to try a different tactic and get ahead of it.

“We recognized if we were going to be successful and do something no other citrus production area has done — defeat the spread of Huanglongbing — we needed to initiate some activity on our own,” Nelsen said.

In 2009, growers took action to prevent HLB from taking hold by creating the Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Program (CPDPP) and imposing a mandatory assessment on each carton of produced citrus fruit. The  CPDPP is administered by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and managed by a 17-member Board comprised of citrus growers from every major citrus producing region in the state, two nursery grower representatives, and one “general public” position.

Nelsen said the program is primarily operational orientated, meaning “find the bug, find the disease before it finds the commercial industry.” The program instills participation from all stakeholder groups and has never been contested by the growers. Whether it’s treating for Asian citrus psyllid in backyards, changing harvesting practices, or mandating a coordinated spray program, the California citrus industry has recognized that they need to work together to address the issues.

“The industry continues to be unified in its practices,” Nelsen said. “It’s expensive — really expensive — but the alternative is losing a $3 billion industry.”

That’s also one of the reasons the California Citrus Mutual teamed up with Bayer to  help protect the state’s commercial citrus industry from the deadly Asian citrus psyllid through the Abandoned Citrus Tree (ACT) removal program. Through the ACT program, California Citrus Mutual works with growers, government officials, and local residents to review and agree to the removal of trees that are not being properly managed and pose a threat to harbor ACP and spread HLB.

“We’ve put a lot of effort in making sure the partnership with the homeowner is as strong as it is with the grower,” Nelsen said. “If we don’t have a complete program going up and down this state – we are going to lose the fight. It is not of a matter of keeping the growers informed, it’s a matter of keeping the general public informed because they will go political, they will go legal, they will go negative, and that is a major component of our program.”

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