High-stakes war is waged to save trees

HARLINGEN — Winter is here, and every year it brings the messy and acidic delight of cheap, fresh Texas oranges and their pulpy-sweet juice.

Since citrus trees were introduced to the Rio Grande Valley in the 1880s, this bounty can be found at grocery stores and roadside stands, at U-pick citrus groves or even your own backyard.

There’s no guarantee it will continue.

Behind the scenes, growers and state and federal officials are fighting desperately to block the spread of citrus greening disease, a bacterium spread by a tiny fly called the Asian citrus psyllid. The disease reached Texas in 2012.

The war is on because growers, agriculture experts and state officials have seen what it has unleashed on Florida’s citrus groves.

In a word: Devastation.

Since citrus greening arrived in 2005, Florida’s $9 billion a year citrus industry has been reduced by 75 percent, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.

CGD is regarded as the deadliest citrus disease Florida growers have faced, and not just because of crop and tree losses, but also due to the high cost of implementing new strategies to fight the disease.

Some growers have just given up.

In 2000, there were 665,529 commercially producing citrus acres in Florida; by the last growing season in 2015-16, producing acreage had dropped to 480,121 acres.

In Texas most of the citrus acreage is in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and 70 percent of production is in grapefruit. But the psyllid fly and the bacteria it carries are indiscriminate when it comes to citrus, and can infect any citrus variety.

Statewide about 30,000 acres of citrus are in production this year and, while far below Florida, Texas citrus still has an economic impact to the state of about $250 million annually.

It’s no surprise growers and agriculture officials are doing everything they can to prevent a repeat of what happened in Florida.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced four grants worth $13.6 million to fight citrus greening disease. Since 2009, the USDA has pumped more than $400 million into stopping the Asian citrus psyllid and citrus greening.

“The economic impact of citrus greening disease is measured in the billions,” said Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. “NIFA investments in research are critical measures to help the citrus industry survive and thrive, and to encourage growers to replant with confidence.”

Since the disease has no remedy, the war is being taken to the Asian citrus psyllid.

“What we do as an industry is try to fight the psyllids which can spread it,” Dale Murden, president of Mission-based Texas Citrus Mutual, said last week.

“I think it’s going very well,” he added. “The numbers are showing a real decline since we started the program in 2013, and we still have psyllids, but not near the number we had four to five years ago.”

“Slowing down the spread of psyllids is the only hope you have until scientists find a cure,” Murden said.

Citrus fruits are native to Asia, where trees have been cultivated for 4,000 years. From there, traders brought citrus to the Mediterranean and eventually the New World.

In Texas, the first seedling orange trees were planted in 1882 by Don Macedonio Vela at his Laguna Seca Ranch in Hidalgo County.

Part of the problem with controlling the Asian citrus psyllid is, as Don Macedonio discovered to his delight, citrus trees will grow anywhere in the Rio Grande Valley.

Experts say homeowners with citrus trees also have a part to play in the fight. And with USDA estimates putting the number of citrus trees in Valley backyards at 1 million, it makes for a lot of soldiers.

“Citrus greening is a real threat in the Valley, not just for large orchards but for the family citrus tree,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said last week. “I encourage anyone with one or more citrus trees to learn about this disease and how it spreads.

“Together we can protect the Texas citrus industry that is vital not only to the Valley but the entire state,” Miller added.

Despite public information efforts by Texas Citrus Mutual, the Texas Department of Agriculture, Texas A&M University AgriLife and USDA, many of these backyard trees go uninspected and untreated.

“As much outreach as we do, every year we still find people who have never heard of it,” Murden said of citrus greening.

“We need all the help we can get.”