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Dangerous citrus pest nears California growing center

The Asian citrus psyllid, which has wreaked havoc elsewhere, is found in rural San Diego County. A high concentration of organic farmers in the area complicates efforts to control the insect.

October 31, 2009|Jerry Hirsch

A tiny insect that threatens California's $1.6-billion citrus industry has been found near one of the state's commercial citrus growing regions.

The Asian citrus psyllid, which has ravaged orchards in Florida as well as overseas, was found in Valley Center in rural San Diego County, the closest the bug has come to a major concentration of citrus groves.

Northern San Diego County has about 2,500 acres of commercial citrus trees and is home to the largest concentration of organic citrus farmers in the nation, which will complicate efforts to control the insect, said Ted Batkin, president of the Citrus Research Board.

"The Valley Center trapping is not a surprise, but it is a real concern. This is very close to several thousand acres of citrus groves," Batkin said.

The insect, which often carries a disease that kills citrus trees, was trapped Monday in a small "ranchette" that has about 40 citrus trees, the California Department of Food and Agriculture said Friday.

State officials are awaiting lab results on whether it is infected.

"This is a detection of very high concern," said Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the state agency.

Last year, the psyllid skipped over the border from Mexico and has since been trapped in residential neighborhoods in much of Southern California.

"It is getting closer. We are going to see it reach commercial groves," said Beth Grafton-Cardwell, a UC Riverside entomologist based in the San Joaquin Valley. "The psyllid is relentless."

The citrus industry and state agricultural officials are racing to limit the spread of the psyllid, which can carry citrus greening disease, also called Huanglongbing, or HLB. So far, the nearest outbreaks of citrus greening have been in Louisiana and Mexico's Yucatan peninsula.

The disease does not affect humans, but it does ruin the taste of citrus fruit and juice before killing the plants. There is no known cure.

Officials have trapped uninfected psyllids in Los Angeles, Orange, Imperial and San Diego counties. The bug also has been found in Arizona.

Entomologists expect the insect to make its way up to the prime citrus-growing regions of Ventura, Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties over the next year or two. They say it's only a matter of time before citrus greening disease finds its way to California from Mexico or elsewhere.

Organic farmers in San Diego County are likely to be the first farmers to feel the economic effects of the psyllid. State officials are aggressive about using insecticides to spray trees and surrounding areas where the bug is found in order to knock down the colony and slow the insect's spread. Such spraying would make the farmers unable to market their fruit as organic.

Batkin said he would meet with citrus farmers in San Diego County today to discuss options for how to limit the psyllid's spread into commercial groves.

In July, the state food and agriculture department said a detection dog working with inspectors at a FedEx depot in Fresno discovered luggage that contained curry leaves shipped from India. The leaves were infested with juvenile psyllids that were carriers of the disease. The insects were destroyed.

Most experts believe that the disease will be spotted first on a backyard tree rather than in a commercial orange grove. They are urging homeowners to learn what to look for at the food and agriculture department website or by calling the agency toll free at (800) 491-1899.

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesjerry

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