Nasty Bug Appears as County Slashes Top Pest, Plant Jobs

Farmers Worry over Citrus Psyllid Discoveries in Goleta and Carp

Agricultural Commissioner Cathy M. Fisher
Paul Wellman

A citrus pest that threatens California’s lemon and orange industry was found in Carpinteria and Goleta at three locations last month, state officials said, bringing the total number of “find sites” to 12 on the South Coast this year and 28 in Santa Barbara County since 2012.

The Asian citrus psyllid, as it is known, has not yet tested positive in Santa Barbara County for the bacteria that causes huanglongbing, or HLB, the fatal disease that is devastating Florida crops, said Victoria Hornbaker, citrus program manager for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. But county residents should be on the lookout for uneven yellowing in their lemon trees, she said. The insects, which are undeterred by drought, were detected recently in state traps near Casitas Pass and Foothill roads in Carpinteria, and La Patera Lane and the end of North Patterson Avenue in Goleta.

“What’s really alarming is that a couple of counties over, HLB trees are being infected and removed,” Hornbaker said. “This is a disease that will essentially annihilate an entire industry and everybody’s backyard citrus trees.”

The latest detections of Asian citrus psyllid in Santa Barbara County have heightened consternation in some quarters over the pending downsizing of two specialist jobs in the Agricultural Commissioner’s office ​— ​that of Brian Cabrera, the county entomologist, or pest expert, and Heather Scheck, the plant pathologist, or disease expert. The two PhD scientists provide free identification and advice to hundreds of farmers, ranchers, arborists, landscapers, park officials, and backyard gardeners every year.

In January, state officials said, Cabrera intercepted a shipment of Florida tangelos in gift boxes at the Santa Barbara Airport that tested positive for HLB.

Asian citrus psyllid
Paul Wellman

“If you don’t have any technical people in the field, how are you supposed to know what’s going on?” said Jim Downer, a University of California Cooperative Extension plant pathologist and horticulturist in Ventura, speaking as an individual. “There are only so many eyes out there. We have many kinds of pests coming at us.”

During county budget hearings in June, on the heels of a Board of Supervisors resolution proclaiming June 6-14 as Invasive Pests Action Week, Commissioner Cathy Fisher proposed combining the two specialist jobs. The county’s Agricultural Advisory Committee opposed the idea, but the board majority approved it. Fisher explained that “to address a workload need and improve efficiency,” one of the specialists would serve as both an entomologist and plant pathologist, and the other would be offered a newly created position as biologist, with a cut in pay.

“No one’s walking out the door,” she said.

Between them, Cabrera and Scheck test hundreds of samples of pests, weeds, and plant diseases yearly. Fisher said the 14 biologists in her office would be able to do the initial screening at a lower cost with no reduction in services. Using high-tech microscopes, she said, they can forward photographs of specimens to the state as needed by email. Often, even an iPhone photo is sufficient for identification purposes, Fisher said.

But Sharyne Merritt, an avocado rancher who is vice chair of the county Agricultural Advisory Committee, wrote to the board, “The County needs specialists in the Agricultural Commission Department, not recent college graduates with smart phones.”

Overall, the board approved a $5 million budget for Fisher’s office for 2015-16, up $330,000 from last year. Last year, the office reported, agriculture in this county brought in nearly $1.5 billion in gross revenues. Lemons were number 13 on the list of top crops; they brought in nearly $13 million.

In an interview last week, Fisher said the Asian citrus psyllid trapping and testing program was run by the state and would not be affected by the restructuring. She said there was a shift underway from conventional to organic farming, and that growers were asking for more training in pest control. Growers of strawberries, the top local crop, now send their samples to California Polytechnic State University, Fisher said.

“What I’m hearing from the growers is that their needs have changed,” she said. “They have their own pest identification resources and farm advisors.”

But many others, such as James and Lauris Rose, the owners of Cal-Orchid, Inc. in Goleta, are dependent on the county specialists. The Roses’ export shipments are inspected for free by Scheck before they leave the country, to meet foreign certification standards. James Rose said he was “totally against” combining the specialist jobs because “they’re two separate doctrines.”

“It would be slow and expensive to send leaf samples up to Sacramento,” Rose said. “It would be a real hardship for me.”

Last month, Fisher kicked off a series of forums open only to farmers and growers. Based on their feedback, she said she is fashioning a new job to serve them.

Paul Van Leer, an Agricultural Advisory Committee member who manages the Las Varas and Edwards ranches, a cattle, avocado, and lemon operation on the Gaviota Coast, said now that Fisher “is willing to create a brand-new position tailored to our needs, I don’t think it’s a setback, as long as she feels she can cover our bases. That’s yet to be determined.”

As for the Asian citrus psyllid, Van Leer believes it’s under control for now, but he’s worried.

“If it spreads, we’ll end up losing all of our orchards,” he said. “The symptoms don’t show up for years.”

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