Abandoned citrus groves face the bulldozer

Issue Date: January 27, 2016
By Kate Campbell
A crew removes citrus trees in an abandoned grove in San Bernardino County. The trees will be pulled out and shredded to prevent infestation by the Asian citrus psyllid, which can spread a fatal plant disease. Citrus trees become especially vulnerable during spring because the psyllid feeds on new growth, which flushes during that time of year.
Photo/Gayle Covey
In San Bernardino County, healthy citrus groves, left, are a big part of the county’s agricultural heritage and the local farm economy. Officials say protecting the health of local groves includes coordinated treatment programs to prevent pest infestations, and removing abandoned or neglected trees to prevent spread of pests and plant diseases.
Photo/Gayle Covey

Dead and dying citrus trees are being removed by officials in San Bernardino County because of concerns the trees pose a serious threat to nearby commercial citrus groves.

The county took action after sending landowners a series of warning letters in December outlining the threat of infestations of the Asian citrus psyllid, a pest that can spread a fatal citrus disease known variously as huanglongbing, HLB or citrus greening.

After no response from landowners to warnings, trees were removed under authority of the state Food and Agricultural Code, which allows neglected or abandoned orchards that harbor agricultural pests and diseases to be declared a public nuisance and removed at the owner's expense.

"The entire county is now under quarantine for (Asian citrus psyllid)," San Bernardino County Agricultural Commissioner Roberta Willhite told landowners in a letter. "Citrus trees that are not being taken care of represent a major risk to healthy citrus in the area."

Noting that HLB is considered the most serious citrus tree disease worldwide because it is fatal and untreatable, Willhite said the county's "only option currently is to perform control measures focused largely on prevention of the disease by attempting to reduce the ACP population."

With hundreds of citrus acres abandoned statewide, Alyssa Houtby of California Citrus Mutual said, "We've been working on this issue extensively the last few weeks. Abandoned orchards are a serious concern as we try to fight against the Asian citrus psyllid."

She said some tree pull-outs initiated last week came on land jointly owned by Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The land was purchased a number of years ago for flood control.

"It was a huge victory to get the counties to agree to remove the orchard," Houtby said.

Although state statute provides authority for county officials to act when there are clear pest and disease threats to agriculture, some counties have not needed to use the authority in the recent past and have been reluctant to take action, she said.

"Currently, CCM and the state's Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Program are working with county agricultural commissioners to abate truly abandoned orchards," Houtby said.

She described the abatement process as "very cumbersome, long and full of legal roadblocks," but said it's "a necessary piece of the puzzle."

"Really, we need growers—sometimes residential property owners—to voluntarily remove abandoned orchards," she said.

Another complication, Houtby said, lies in the fact that many properties contain more than 24 trees, which the California Department of Food and Agriculture classifies as commercial-scale citrus plantings and therefore not eligible for the state's coordinated residential treatment program. But property owners with that number of trees often don't consider themselves commercial growers.

"Unfortunately, in most cases homeowners with two to three acres of citrus growing more than 24 trees may not be properly treating for the psyllid for various reasons," she said. "Ideally, we would like to see these trees removed."

The California Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Program has staff dedicated to farmer outreach in commercial growing regions, said Bob Atkins, the program's statewide grower-liaison coordinator. Each grower liaison is keeping track of abandoned orchards in his or her area of responsibility and trying to work with landowners, he said.

The drought and inadequate water supplies have also contributed to the problem, he said. In some cases, commercial groves can be saved if adequate water becomes available in time; in other circumstances, removal and replanting is anticipated.

"We want to give people notice and time to assess all their options, so they can come to their own solutions to address the threat," Atkins said. "We've got recommendations, but growers need to decide what's best for their situation."

Estimates vary for the number of citrus acres with trees that need to be removed, but Atkins said it's in the hundreds of acres.

San Bernardino County citrus grower Chuck Hills estimated there are about 300 acres of abandoned or neglected citrus in his county alone.

One problem growers in more urbanized areas encounter comes from farmland purchased for non-agricultural purposes that's awaiting development, said Hills, who serves as San Bernardino County Farm Bureau president.

Another problem in urbanized areas is residential development that adjoins farmland, he said. Sometimes, residential property owners are reluctant about following ongoing treatment plans and their citrus trees become vulnerable to psyllid infestation, which poses a threat to neighboring citrus farms.

San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors Chairman James Ramos said his office has worked closely with county officials to enforce state codes dealing with abandoned crops.

"We know the timing of treatment and tree removal are everything in dealing with the psyllid," Ramos said.

Gayle Covey, field representative for Ramos and county Farm Bureau executive director, said declaring a grove to be a nuisance and potentially putting a lien on someone's property is "a serious matter."

"It's not a path we want to follow, but considering the seriousness of this threat, we have to be ready to take action," Covey said.

Atkins said the state's citrus plantings are approaching the season for new growth, which attracts psyllid feeding.

"With all the rain, even trees that look ratty will flush and grow beyond the dead top stock," he said. "A lot of people will say, 'But my tree is dead,' implying the tree is unlikely to flush, but the rootstock will continue to produce growth."

County-wide quarantines for the Asian citrus psyllid are in place in Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Tulare and Ventura counties, with portions of Alameda, Fresno, Kern, Madera, Merced, San Benito, San Francisco, San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Stanislaus counties also under quarantine.

The quarantines prohibit the movement out of the quarantine area of citrus and curry leaf tree nursery stock, including all plant parts except fruit, and require that all citrus fruit be cleaned of leaves and stems prior to moving out of the quarantine area.

In Florida, HLB has taken a severe toll on citrus groves. Florida Citrus Mutual said in December that HLB is endemic to Florida and has reduced production there more than 50 percent during the past decade.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.