McALLEN — Now that the dreaded citrus greening disease has been confirmed in South Texas, what should citrus tree owners do?
In a nutshell, it depends. But the overall message, according to industry leaders and citrus experts, is to get informed.
“The first distinction is whether your trees are in the 5-mile radius quarantine area,” said Dr. Juan Anciso, a Texas AgriLife Extension Service citrus specialist in Weslaco. “The second distinction is whether you are a commercial grower or a homeowner with citrus trees on your property.”
Earlier this month, U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratories confirmed that a single Valencia orange tree south of San Juan had tested positive for greening, a bacterial disease that is fatal to trees and has no cure, but does not harm humans, Anciso said.
Since then, eight other trees in the same grove also have tested positive, he said.
“We have reason to be cautiously optimistic that the disease will be confined to that one small area,” said Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual, a commodity group headquartered in Mission.
“The concern now is how widespread this disease is, but the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has been looking extensively in dooryards (homeowner trees) for the last three years and all tests have come back negative,” he said. “And for the last four years, thousands of tests have come back negative from commercial orchards.”
Another reason for optimism is that an area-wide insecticide program among commercial growers has succeeded in maintaining very low populations of the Asian citrus psyllid, the insect that transmits the disease from tree to tree, Prewett said.
Growers apply insecticides timed with tree dormancy two times a year when trees tend to have fairly uniform flush, or new growth, on most groves, Prewett said. These dormant sprays are timed to keep psyllids from reproducing on the new flushes.
In between dormant sprays, growers are encouraged to spray for psyllids based on scouting reports that determine psyllid populations. Growers are urged to continue with the program and spray their orchards before the end of the current spray window of Feb. 6, he said.
“I know it’s tough for growers to spray right now with all the harvesting and irrigating they’re doing, but this area-wide psyllid control program is more important now than ever,” Prewett said. “We’re also developing a protocol that should be out soon regarding the harvesting of citrus within the quarantine area. Until then, fruit in that area is not being harvested.”
Prewett said commercial growers with questions should immediately call Martha Trejo at Texas Citrus Mutual at 956-584-1772.
“We’re in the process of sending emails to all commercial growers in the quarantine zone, but their efforts to control psyllid populations are especially critical right now,” he said.
Homeowners with citrus trees in the quarantine zone should get informed about greening by going to www.texascitrusgreening.org, or by calling their AgriLife Extension county office.
In Hidalgo County, call 956-383-1026. In Cameron County, call 956-361-8236.
“We realize that it’s difficult for homeowners to spray their trees, so we’re asking that they educate themselves about this disease and its vector,” Prewett said. “Visit the website for the latest information about a spray program for homeowners in the quarantine area that we are considering implementing. And please, don’t move citrus plant material of any kind out of the quarantine area.”
Homeowners with citrus trees outside the quarantine area also are being asked to educate themselves at the website, call their AgriLife Extension county offices or visit with Master Gardeners who will be providing greening information at various retail outlets this weekend, said Barbara Storz, an AgriLife Extension horticulturist in Edinburg.
“We are currently training more Master Gardeners to help us inform the public, and we’re working on visiting Winter Texan mobile home parks,” she said. “But this weekend, you can visit with us Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Valley Garden Center, 801 E. Business Highway 83 at McColl Road in McAllen. Saturday they are at the farmers market, 9 a.m. to noon, at the Wellness Center at Doctors Hospital, 5525 Doctor’s Drive, just off Dove, in Edinburg.
“Then on Sunday from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. we’ll be at three locations: Valley Garden Center, Waugh’s Nursery Center, 4616 N. Jackson Road in McAllen, and at Lowe’s at 707 S. Jackson Road in Pharr.”
“It’s all about education and knowing what to do and what not to do,” Anciso said. “This is a critical time in the history of the Rio Grande Valley’s citrus industry, but we’re cautiously optimistic that we can contain this disease and protect our citrus.”
The Valley’s citrus industry is grown on 28,000 acres, has an annual economic impact of $140 million and employs 4,000 people, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture.