By Keith Watkins
Imagine if the Central Valley was no longer able to grow and harvest citrus fruit. Imagine if this treasured state crop and vital part of our region’s economy slowly disappeared, while residents could no longer grow and enjoy their backyard citrus fruit.
Unfortunately, this once unimaginable idea could be getting closer to becoming our reality, if we don’t act swiftly.
A recent surge of nearly 75 Asian citrus psyllid (ACP) detections in Kern County has growers and residents concerned about the threat of a fatal plant disease, Huanglongbing (HLB), that can be spread by the invasive pest. While the disease has not yet been found in the county, a detection of the incurable disease could signal a major battleground shift in the fight against HLB.
The majority of the detections — found in both residential and commercial settings in areas of Bakersfield, Arvin, Lamont, Mettler and Maricopa — have occurred in the last two months after a relatively quiet year. We’ve seen seasonal activity like this before and been successful in knocking down populations of ACP by responding quickly and encouraging homeowners to inspect for the pest on their trees. It’s this urgency and collaboration that will determine whether we’re successful in preserving citrus in Central Valley for generations to come.
Citrus is the third highest grossing commodity in Kern County, with a value of more than $990 million, according to the 2019 Kern County Agricultural Crop Report. Over 1 million tons of citrus fruit were harvested in 2019, increasing nearly 20 percent from the year prior. However, over the past two months, Kern County has seen one of the sharpest increases of ACP detections in its history, threatening the continued growth of this coveted crop.
While a tiny pest no bigger than a grain of rice may not appear threatening, ACP and the deadly disease it carries, HLB, have been threatening Southern California’s backyard and commercial citrus for over eight years and has decimated Florida’s commercial citrus production.
As of today, HLB has only been identified in backyard citrus trees in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and as of yet hasn’t made its way into a commercial citrus grove. But if the disease were to take hold, we would not only lose our beloved backyard fruit, but growers, packers, nurseries and field workers may lose their livelihoods.
The Citrus Pest & Disease Prevention Division — a division of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) — and the Kern County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office have boots on the ground in Kern County and are working tirelessly to notify industry members and residents, visually inspect citrus trees and survey, trap and test psyllids found in our area. However, their work alone isn’t going to be enough to control these psyllid populations. Whether you have one lemon tree in your front yard or a grove with hundreds of rows, this threat is on our doorstep and we want to ensure that homeowners and growers alike are working together to stop psyllids in their tracks.
How Kern County residents can help:
- Report any signs or symptoms of ACP to the free CDFA Pest Hotline as soon as possible: 800-491-1899.
- Allow agricultural officials to access your property so they can look and treat for the pest.
- Take proper care of your tree. Obtain citrus care advice from org.
- As part of your tree maintenance, visit your local nursery or garden center to get advice on products that can help protect your citrus tree.
- When pruning your tree, dry out citrus clippings or double bag them before removing the plant material from the property.
- Do not move citrus plants, foliage or fruit in or out of your area, or across state or international borders.
- Citrus has been woven into the fabric of California’s heritage for centuries, join me in the effort to protect it. To learn more, residents can visit org, and citrus industry members are encouraged to sign-up for alerts at CitrusInsider.org.
Keith Watkins is a citrus grower with operations in Kern County and a member of the CPDPC.