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Florida citrus canker battle seen lasting 2 years

July 6, 2005

By Jane Sutton

MIAMI (Reuters) – It will take at least 2 more years to
halt an outbreak of citrus canker that already has forced
Florida’s commercial growers to destroy more than 5 percent of
their trees, officials in the $9.1 billion industry said on
Wednesday.

Florida produces more than three-fourths of the United
States’ citrus fruit and its 10-year campaign to eradicate the
disease suffered a devastating blow last year when a trio of
hurricanes spread the canker-causing bacteria through the
state’s commercial groves.

“We’re probably realistically looking at a 2-year period
for removing and controlling everything that we have identified
so far,” said Denise Feiber, spokeswoman for the Florida
Department of Agriculture.

“But, if we have another hurricane season like we did last
year, then we’re going to be re-evaluating.”

A year ago, 15 of Florida’s 67 counties had citrus canker,
but it was confined mainly to backyard trees in residential
areas of southern Florida and the state Division of Plant
Industry expected to eradicate it by early 2006.

It has now spread to 22 counties, and since January has
been confirmed in the major orange- and grapefruit-growing
regions of Polk, St. Lucie and Indian River counties in central
Florida.

Scientists know the infection was weatherborne because they
found large quantities of bacteria on the tops of huge swaths
of trees, Feiber said.

The rate of new finds has slowed since the first of the
year but inspectors are still finding one or two new sites of
infection per week, including some at nurseries that supplied
commercial groves.

“The numbers are certainly at the manageable stage, still,”
Feiber said.

The Florida and U.S. Departments of Agriculture expect to
complete a survey of the commercial groves by the end of August
to determine just how far the canker has spread.

Citrus trees within 1,900 feet of infected plants must be
destroyed to halt the contagion, and commercial growers have
been forced to burn 5 million of their 98 million trees, half
of them since January, Feiber said.

Some 29,500 acres of commercial groves have been lost to
canker, or about 4 percent of Florida’s total.

“It’s very depressing for the industry right now,” said
Casey Pace, spokeswoman for Florida Citrus Mutual, the state’s
largest growers association.

Canker does not hurt humans or animals but causes brown
lesions on the trees and fruit and causes fruit to drop
prematurely, reducing yields by 30 percent to 50 percent.

Letting it rampage unchecked through Florida’s groves would
cost growers $342 million a year in lowered yields and loss of
sales due to blemished fruit, Pace said.

Fighting the outbreak has cost $500 million since the
current infection was first discovered on a grapefruit tree
near Miami International Airport in 1995. Growers spend $20
million a year just disinfecting workers and equipment to keep
them from carrying the bacteria to new areas, Pace said.

Quarantine rules, in effect for parts of 15 counties,
prohibit movement of fruit and plants from infected areas and
bar new planting for 2 years. It takes another 2 to 7 years for
the trees to start producing.

“It’s a 10-year setback,” Pace said. “They have to start
all the way over from scratch.”




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