Monday, February 2, 2009

Avocado growers battle beetle in Florida

Excerpts from a 1/30/09 article in The Packer by Doug Ohlemeir

Florida avocado grower-shippers are fighting a tiny beetle that can kill avocado trees. Agricultural scientists are trying to stem spread of a disease that could wipe out half the state’s avocado crop.

The exotic redbay ambrosia beetle spreads a fungus that causes the laurel wilt disease that has killed red bay trees, which are closely related to avocado trees, throughout the southeastern U.S.

Laurel wilt has moved from South Carolina and Georgia into south Florida. In Florida, the beetle that’s as small as President Abraham Lincoln’s nose on a copper penny has traveled as far south as Okeechobee and Indian River counties, closing in on Florida’s Miami-Dade County avocado growing region.

“It’s 100 miles north of us now,” said Jonathan Crane, a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences professor in the university’s Homestead, Fla. Tropical Research and Education Center. “This could be more like citrus greening disease, as it ends up killing the trees. Based on all the current evidence, avocado trees immediately get attacked by the beetle.”

Craig Wheeling, chief executive officer of the Homestead-based Brooks Tropicals Inc. and chairman of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-affiliated Florida Avocado Administrative Committee, has appeared before the Miami-Dade County Commission requesting the county help fund research to stop the beetle’s damage.

“This problem was first seen impacting avocados just over two months ago,” he said. “Since then, the Florida avocado industry has been working with the USDA to get research funds to fight this pest. This beetle could have the same impact as citrus canker or citrus greening.”

With the holidays and the change in presidential administrations, Wheeling said the committee experienced difficulty in securing federal funding but said the process in late January began moving. He said he believes the committee will be able to approve $75,000 from its hurricane emergency fund to start beetle research which he called vital to the industry.

Along with Brooks, other avocado packers working to secure funding are Fresh King Inc., Homestead, New Limeco LLC, Princeton, Fla., and Miami-based J&C Tropicals Inc. and M&M Farm Inc.

The disease goes after older trees more than the younger ones and can kill a large tree within three weeks, Crane said.

With 7,500 acres, Florida’s $30 million crop represents the country’s second-largest avocado-producing state.