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Ventura County

Nurseries to Get Federal Aid to Fight Grape Pest

A $5-million infusion from the Agriculture Department will be used to help contain an insect that is threatening the state's wine industry.

March 06, 2003|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Southern California nursery owners will receive millions of dollars in emergency funding to help control a voracious pest that threatens the state's wine industry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Wednesday.

Until the announcement of $5 million for nursery growers, part of a $28.5-million federal package, owners had been single-handedly footing the bill to hand-inspect and spray their trees, shrubs and other greenery to rid them of the glassy-winged sharpshooter.

The half-inch-long bug has infested Southern California since 2000, destroying more than $40 million worth of grapevines in the Temecula area. The insect carries a bacterium that causes Pierce's disease, which clogs a grapevine's water-carrying tissues and makes it slowly die of thirst.

Although posing no direct threat to California's $3-billion nursery industry, the glassy-winged sharpshooter can be carried on the leaves of trees and bushes.

To prevent it from moving into Northern California's prime wine-making regions, state regulators have restricted shipments of Southern California nursery stock into the upper half of the state.

So far, containment measures have been successful but not without a price to nurseries. Bruce Pherson, senior vice president and general manager of Boething Treeland Farms, which has four farms in Ventura County, estimates that his company has spent at least $400,000 in the last 1 1/2 years on chemicals and inspections.

"It's definitely the most severe infestation to hit us," Pherson said. "Basically, it's a problem for the vineyard grape growers, but to address the problem, it's been directed at the nursery industry. We are having to look under every leaf, and there are thousands of leaves on a tree."

How the aid will be distributed has yet to be determined, said Jay Van Rein, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture. Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail said about 23 nurseries in the county are registered to ship material to Northern California.

One is Valley Crest Tree Co., which owns a 300-acre farm in Fillmore. President Robert Crudup says the Calabasas-based company has lost about $3 million a year in sales to Northern California since the start of the glassy-winged sharpshooter infestation.

"Fillmore is ground zero. It's one of the most heavily infested areas," said Crudup, whose company owns several farms throughout the state. "Ventura County is a real hot spot."

Like other nursery owners, Crudup said he has people working full time to inspect the leaves of trees in search of egg masses. He said he had heard of some larger nurseries spending $750,000 a year on chemicals.

"It's a huge effort the nursery industry has been doing," Crudup said. "The nursery industry has never asked the government for anything. We don't do nursery subsidies. But we had to stand up and say we need some help here. We're doing a job for the public good."

The federal aid marks the first time Congress has directed money to nursery growers to fight the glassy-winged sharpshooter infestation, said U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who helped secure the funding.

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