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Asian citrus psyllid in Tulare

FRESNO -- A tiny pest capable of carrying and spreading a disease deadly to citrus trees has been found in the heart of California's citrus belt, agriculture officials confirmed on Monday.

The Asian citrus psyllid was found in a commercial citrus orchard near Strathmore, southeast of Visalia, Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner Marilyn Kinoshita said.

The insect was identified Friday on a trap pulled from a tree by California Department of Food and Agriculture staff, Kinoshita said.

It's only the second psyllid found in the San Joaquin Valley -- the first was also found in Tulare County -- though many others have been found in Southern California.

Thus far, none of the psyllids have tested positive for the deadly bacteria known by its Chinese name Huanglongbing, but also called “citrus greening.”

It's not known whether the psyllid found last week carries the bacteria, Kinoshita said.

The disease has decimated the citrus industry in Florida and other parts of the world, but it hasn't touched California's $1.8 billion industry.

The Golden State's citrus rank first in the nation in crop value and second after Florida in production.

“It's a cause for alarm, but we can't overreact just yet,” said Joel Nelson, president of the California Citrus Mutual, a nonprofit group representing citrus farmers. “We hope it's an isolated find, a hitchhiker. We're sitting and holding our breaths.”

There are no known pesticides or other cures to combat the disease. It can only be eliminated by finding and eliminating the insect carrier.

That's why California growers have taxed themselves to fund a psyllid trapping program, which aims to eliminate the bacteria carrier before it can spread the disease, Nelson said.

That's because, unlike in Florida and elsewhere, relatively few invasive psyllids have made it to California thus far.

“The goal is to find the psyllid before it spreads the disease,” Nelson said.

Huanglongbing is hard to detect to the naked eye because the bacteria can be present in a tree for a year or longer before symptoms are visible. Once infected, the tree dies within five years.

Typically, a healthy lemon tree is productive for up to 25 years, a grapefruit tree for up to 50 years and an orange tree for up to 75 years.

The psyllid was first detected in Southern California in 2008 and is known to exist in Ventura, San Diego, Imperial, Orange, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino and Riverside counties -- mostly in ornamental or backyard trees.

So far, more than 10,000 invasive psyllids, all without the bacteria, have been found in Southern California.

The first psyllid in the San Joaquin Valley was found in February, east of Lindsay in Tulare County.

The county has 119,000 acres of citrus, 61 citrus packing sheds and four juice plants.

At that time, 100 traps were deployed within the core square mile and another 50 traps per square mile in the surrounding 8-square- mile buffer zone. No additional psyllids were located.

This time, CDFA will again deploy additional traps and survey citrus trees for the presence of additional psyllids, Kinoshita said.

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