Agriculture

Abandoned citrus tree in your backyard? Bug-battling industry will pay to take it out

The battle against one of the citrus industry’s most dangerous pests is moving to a new front: abandoned residential citrus trees.

California Citrus Mutual and Bayer Crop Science have launched a program to remove homeowners’ citrus trees for free to prevent them from becoming a breeding ground for the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny insect with the potential to spread an incurable plant disease.

The disease, known as huanglongbing, has devastated the citrus industries in Florida, Texas, Mexico and Brazil by slowly killing trees and making the fruit worthless. So far, California has found the disease only in backyard trees in the Los Angeles area.

Growers in California’s $3.3 billion citrus industry want to keep it that way. As part of their fight to prevent the insect and the disease from migrating, farmers, scientists and industry officials have attacked the problem on multiple fronts, including pesticide applications, insect trapping and rearing parasitic wasps.

Growers also have realized that abandoned trees and neglected orchards could harbor the psyllid.

The citrus industry’s new program has removed more than 400 abandoned citrus trees from residential properties in Tulare and Ventura counties.

“Millions of homeowners throughout the state enjoy citrus trees in their backyards,” said Alyssa Houtby, director of public affairs for California Citrus Mutual. “Unfortunately ,there are circumstances in which a homeowner cannot properly care for their trees.”

Houtby said the drought, along with the difficulty and cost of pumping groundwater, has forced many rural residents to stop taking care of their citrus trees.

“We understand that the costs of maintaining backyard trees can be very expensive, and that is why we are offering some help,” Houtby said.

The program is operating on a $25,000 endowment but will receive $100,000 in federal funding in January. To qualify, the citrus trees must be near a commercial citrus grove.

Pat Vanslype of Exeter recently took the industry up on its offer of free tree removal. Vanslype had about 80 trees removed from her property because she and her husband could no longer take care of them.

“We have commercial citrus groves all around us, and we did not want our trees to become a place for that bug to hide,” Vanslype said. “We don’t want that disease here; it would be devastating.”

Vanslype said it would have cost her several thousand dollars to remove the trees.

“There is no way we could have done that,” she said. “So we are grateful for this program.”

Houtby said the industry is spreading the word about the program now because the psyllid feeds on new growth that happens in the fall and spring.

To find out more about the program, homeowners can visit the Citrus Matters website, www.citrusmatters.cropscience.bayer.us or call the California Citrus Mutual office at 559-592-3790. Also, growers and homeowners can report abandoned trees online using a confidential web form at www.citrusmatters.us.

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob

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