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Citrus leaders plan disease response

20140822 AREA Citrus-greening 0077WESLACO–Citrus growers must be proactive to save the $150 million Rio Grande Valley industry as a deadly disease continues to spread in the region, representatives of Texas Citrus Mutual emphasized at a news conference Wednesday.

Florida recently reported 80 percent of its trees are infected with citrus greening, threatening the $9 billion industry in the state.

Meanwhile, Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual said in the last few days, 130 newly infected trees have been identified, most in one or two groves. That brings the total confirmed infected trees to nearly 640.

Of those, 430 were in commercial groves concentrated in the Mid Valley, while the rest were in residential yards, stretching from Mission to Brownsville. That’s a small fraction of the citrus trees in the area, Prewett said, adding that folks in Florida wish they had the chance the Valley has to combat the disease.

Infected trees in Mission were found in the downtown area. Most of the infected trees have been removed.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that the very future of the citrus industry here in the Rio Grande Valley, both commercial citrus and also residential citrus, should be very concerned about what this all means,” Prewett said. “I think all of you know that once a tree is infected, there is no cure.”

Prewett said it can’t be proven, but he believes the disease started from an infected nursery in the Mid Valley, near San Carlos and La Blanca on State Highway 107. Young plants are more susceptible to the disease than full-grown trees.

A tiny insect called the Asian citrus psyllid transports the disease.

Citrus greening, or Huanglongbing, is not dangerous to humans or animals, but the fruit produced by an infected tree is not useable, depending at the stage of the disease. Symptoms of the disease include lopsided or bitter fruit. After a period of a few years with infection, the tree eventually will die.

John Da Graca, director of the Texas A&M University Citrus Center in Weslaco, compared citrus greening to AIDS and the HIV virus. Someone could be infected with HIV and feel no symptoms for years. Citrus greening is the same. Scientists are trying to detect the disease as early as possible, but even if they test a healthy leaf of an infected tree, the results will come back negative.

“It is the worst disease that we’ve had to face,” Da Graca said.

As a long-term solution, scientists are looking for a naturally resistant citrus tree, a plant that’s been exposed to the disease and survived. They’re injecting spinach genes, which are anti-bacterial, into citrus trees in hopes of developing a resistant plant.

“Long-term, I think that’s what’s going to save the industry, but we can’t wait for that,” Da Graca said.

In the interim, Prewett said infected trees should be removed. Psyllids must be killed, he said, and young plants in a nursery should be grown in a covered environment, which now is required by law.

And Dan Flores, an entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said in infected areas, the agency is releasing beneficial insects, tiny wasps from Pakistan, that target young psyllids and feed off of them.

The Texas Citrus Pest and Disease Management Corporation is preparing for an emergency response in the area the disease is most prevalent, north of Donna and Alamo and south of State Highway 107. It’ll divide the area into seven sections and spray each part within a two-week period. It has to be coordinated because if one grove is sprayed and another nearby is not, the psyllids will move back into the area.

There’s historically a spike in psyllids in September.

Hidalgo, Cameron and Harris counties are all under quarantine. A tree found in Harris County was tracked to the Valley. Da Graca said psyllids can’t travel very far, and moving plants from one area to another spreads the disease.

To have a tree tested for the disease, visit www.citrusalert.com or call (956) 580-1917.

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CoverageAreaThe Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.

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