What Research Tells Us About the Future of California’s Citrus Industry

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According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, California accounted for 52 percent of citrus production throughout the United States and 63 percent of the nation’s citrus value last crop year. However, as this crop continues to flourish, citrus growers would be remiss not to recognize the dangerous pest and disease which continues to loom over the industry, threatening the future of the iconic California crop.

For more than a decade, the California citrus industry has invested countless hours and created dozens of innovative partnerships to keep Huanglongbing (HLB) out of commercial groves – and, so far, it has worked. By engaging in collaborative efforts with the nation’s top scientists and researchers, the Citrus Pest & Disease Prevention Program (CPDPP) has been able to provide citrus growers throughout California with a myriad of scientifically supported management measures for HLB and the deadly pest, the Asian citrus psyllid (ACP). But are citrus growers seeing a difference?

In a 2019 study conducted by researchers at University of California (UC) Davis and UC Riverside, in collaboration with Citrus Research Board, researchers found a majority (71%) of growers across three major citrus-growing regions in California – the Central Valley, Central Coast and Desert Region – thought that it was unlikely or very unlikely that an HLB-positive tree would be detected in their grove from July 2019 to June 2020. In comparison to a similar survey conducted in 2015, when asked the perceived likelihood of an HLB detection, 26% of respondents thought that it was unlikely or very unlikely that an HLB-positive tree would be detected in their grove by 2020. While the results of the study show growers’ confidence in being able to control HLB is increasing, the industry should be cautious not to fall victim to its own success.

Although, as of today, there has not yet been a confirmed HLB-positive tree in a commercial grove, participants who perceived a higher likelihood of detecting HLB in the initial surveys seemed to be more willing to scout, survey and test, which are three monitoring practices directly aimed at slowing the spread of HLB. In addition, the likelihood of a grower to stay informed and communicate with their regional grower liaison had a positive impact on the propensity to implement proactive measures in preventing HLB and ACP from establishing in their groves. However, researchers are urging growers who may have increased confidence that HLB’s consequences won’t impact them anytime soon to not rely on the actions of others.

In a recent study conducted by Sara García Figuera, Ph.D., UC Davis, she emphasized the importance of coordinating management measures for ACP and HLB prevention over a larger scale as the key to achieving effective control and limiting the spread of the disease. Yet, she adds that securing coordination among growers can be the biggest challenge.

Figuera states it can be easy for some individuals to be tempted to forego these management measures to reduce costs, including treating within the recommended window for ACP, correctly tarping their trucks, or even investing the time to convince their neighbors about the importance of prevention. However, if everyone relied on the efforts of others, the ability of the citrus industry to combat HLB would be greatly reduced, leading to a higher risk of HLB spread in California.

While the signs of increased confidence of CPDPP’s efforts to control HLB is encouraging, state agricultural officials, scientists, grower liaisons and leaders in the citrus industry can agree that while we are moving in the right direction, this positive progress should fuel the collective efforts of the industry to continue moving forward by adhering to regulatory requirements, participating in best practices and encouraging others to follow suit.

To read more on both studies, and to learn more on measures being taken to protect California’s citrus industry, visit CitrusInsider.org.