California Citrus Challenges: Water Tops HLB

Josh McGillCitrus

California Citrus

While the situation has improved this year, lack of available water led to the removal of 25,000 to 30,000 acres of California citrus last year.

Asian citrus psyllids are detected sporadically in the San Joaquin Valley — home to most California oranges and mandarins — and are endemic in Southern California lemon country. But as far as anyone knows, the pests that spread HLB in Florida and Texas have not spread the disease into California’s commercial citrus groves. California HLB detections have been limited to 17 trees in the urban Los Angeles area.

California Citrus Mutual President Joel Nelsen thinks the absence of HLB in groves is at least partly due to a lesson learned from Florida’s devastating experience with HLB: “Get ahead of it.”

Nelsen says California growers were looking hard for psyllids and were prepared to spray aggressively for them for years before the pests showed up in groves. When psyllids were detected, California growers began spraying for them. He contrasts that to Florida, which had psyllids that went mostly unsprayed until HLB was detected in 2005.



Even before HLB was detected in California’s urban areas, the citrus industry began spending about $1 million a year on a public outreach program. “We assumed the problem would start in urban areas, and it has,” Nelsen says. The industry bought radio time to educate urban dwellers about HLB, and the campaign has paid off. Nelsen says homeowners have been cooperative, agreeing with psyllid trapping and removal of HLB-infected trees. “That’s (public outreach) one thing the industry in Florida overlooked,” he says.

Although California’s commercial citrus has been spared known HLB detection so far, Nelsen ranks the disease as his industry’s second biggest challenge because of its potential for devastation.

The citrus industry, like the rest of California agriculture, has suffered from drought and water shortage for three years. There has been very little rain or snowpack, leaving citrus growers totally reliant on groundwater because surface water stored behind dams has been unavailable. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation allocates available surface water, but allocated none to California agriculture for 2014–15, Nelsen says. “We dug wells and offset surface water with groundwater pumping,” but some growers had dry wells, he says. As a result, California growers removed 25,000 to 30,000 acres of citrus groves in the past year, he says.

Relief arrived this year. There has been more snowpack providing more surface water, and the Bureau of Reclamation is expected to allocate sufficient water for agriculture this year. But Nelsen says the water crisis “is not over; it’s temporarily eased,” and that water availability will continue to be the industry’s top challenge.

California has production costs of about $3,500 per acre for oranges, $4,500 for lemons and $5,000 for mandarins, Nelsen says. Growers spend much on pesticides for the virtually all-fresh crop, and up to $500 per acre for access to water from government and private sources, he explains. Mandarin groves are netted each spring at a cost of about $1,500 per acre to prevent cross pollination by bees, he adds. He estimates additional sprays for psyllids cost $100 to $200 per acre.

California citrus acreage has bounced between 250,000 to 270,000 acres over the past 20 years, and currently is about 270,000 acres. This season, according to the May 10 U.S. Department of Agriculture’s citrus forecast, California is expected to produce 52.5 million boxes of oranges, 22 million boxes of mandarins, 21 million boxes of lemons and 3.9 million boxes of grapefruit.

Nelsen says some growers are removing less-desirable, early-season oranges and replanting grapefruit. The grapefruit produced might fill a market hole left by Florida’s drastic grapefruit acreage and production losses of recent years, he says.

“Our potential is still real positive,” Nelsen says. “We’ve attracted new consumers because of the success of our mandarin program.” California produces easy-peel, seedless mandarins that consumers find convenient to eat.

California orange growers who feared the mandarins would cannibalize their sales took action to attract and keep consumers, Nelsen says. They increased orange maturity standards so consumers who buy fruit early in the season like it and keep buying it.

Nelsen says California supplies 85 percent of the United States’ fresh citrus. After the U.S., top markets for California citrus are Canada, Korea, China, Japan and Australia.

Nelsen says he’s “aggravated” that regulations imposed by numerous government agencies have forced many small California growers to sell their groves to larger growers. Regulatory costs for citrus growers have increased 88 percent in 10 years, mainly for fees, permits, licenses and water conveyance costs, Nelsen says. He believes if increasing regulatory and other costs force U.S. citrus growers to charge more for fruit, the growers will lose market share to imports. “Consumers will quit spending on fresh citrus if they find an acceptable alternative at a lower cost,” he says.

Nelsen also is worried by environmental activists “telling us how to grow citrus” and trying to impose even more regulations on growers.

About the Author

Ernie Neff

Senior Correspondent at Large

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