Texas Citrus: Fruit Flies and Other Pesky Problems

Josh McGillGrapefruit

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This season’s Texas grapefruit crop is expected to be 5.2 million boxes, approximately half the size of Florida’s grapefruit crop.

This season’s Texas grapefruit crop is expected to be 5.2 million boxes, approximately half the size of Florida’s grapefruit crop.

By: Ernie Neff 

Mexican fruit flies were a major nuisance to Dale Murden this spring. “As a fresh fruit grower in south Texas, I have to say Mexican fruit fly is our biggest worry,” the citrus grower and president of Texas Citrus Mutual said.

The fruit flies infested Texas’ three-county (Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy) citrus industry in November 2015, prompting a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) quarantine. In quarantine areas covering about 40 to 50 percent of the Texas industry, growers had to apply bait sprays every 14 days, Murden said. He estimated the cost per spray at about $6 per acre.

In small, limited “core” areas of the quarantine near fruit-fly finds, growers had to have their fruit processed into juice. Normally, virtually all Texas grapefruit and oranges are grown for fresh fruit. Murden estimated less than 2 percent of the industry fell within those core quarantine areas.

Texas’ citrus industry is just across the Rio Grande River from Mexico, source of the fruit flies. Murden said the area is loaded with plants that serve as Mexican fruit fly hosts. “I probably have six of them (host plants) in my yard,” he said.

Murden ranked HLB, canker and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — probably in that order — as the other things worrying Texas growers the most.

HLB: LEARNING FROM FLORIDA
By the time HLB was first confirmed in Texas in 2012, the industry had heard and learned much about the disease’s devastating impact on Florida citrus. Florida’s first HLB confirmation was in 2005, and regulators quickly realized the disease was already too widespread to be contained or eradicated. The Asian citrus psyllids that spread HLB had been in Florida for several years before the disease was discovered.

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Dale Murden checks Rio Red grapefruit in a grove.

“How can anybody not see what happened to you all (Florida) and not learn something?” Murden said. As soon as HLB was detected in Texas, virtually all growers began intensive spraying for Asian citrus psyllids, Murden said. “I laughingly tell people that six years ago I didn’t even know what a psyllid was,” and now it’s as familiar to him and other growers as the industry’s ubiquitous rust mite.

Murden credits psyllid sprays, used by at least 95 percent of Texas growers, with keeping HLB infection rates far below the 100 percent level many estimate in Florida groves and trees. He wouldn’t hazard a guess at an HLB infection rate in Texas, saying only, “Who knows? You may have it and not know it.” But he is certain the Texas infection rate “is not even close” to that of Florida, even though the disease has been found in all three Texas counties with commercial citrus.

“We’ve always paid attention to tree health,” Murden added, saying good nutrition and other sound cultural practices help keep most Texas trees from suffering badly from HLB.

Murden said Texas fresh citrus production costs averaged about $1,400 to $1,500 per acre prior to HLB and Mexican fruit flies. Psyllid and fruit-fly control have boosted per-acre costs to about $2,200. Murden said costs have been held down some by growers who frequently combine sprays for psyllids and rust mites.

CANKER: TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT
Murden recalls his reaction when a USDA survey discovered citrus canker on a lime tree in a Brownsville country club in the fall of 2015: “My heart stopped.” Brownsville lies within the citrus industry. Fortunately, the canker strain was specific to limes, and all subsequent 124 canker finds have been lime-specific.

“I’m hoping we dodged the bullet,” Murden said.

CONCERN ABOUT EPA
Murden rates the EPA as the industry’s fourth biggest oncern because the agency wants to discontinue use of the neonicotinoid insecticides that are the best weapon against HLB-spreading psyllids.

OPTIMISM STILL REIGNS
In spite of a host of concerns, Texas growers remain primarily optimistic about the future, Murden said. “We always figure out a way to bounce back,” he added.

Murden recalls that Texas, like Florida, suffered massive tree-killing freezes in 1983 and 1989, but survived and learned from the disasters. After the freezes, Texas growers removed old citrus varieties and replanted better new ones, Murden said.

Texas citrus acreage peaked at more than 100,000 acres in the 1940s, declining primarily because citrus land was lost to residential and commercial development. The state now has about 26,000 citrus acres that were expected to produce 5.2 million boxes of grapefruit and 1.57 million boxes of oranges this season.

“We’re actually increasing acreage,” Murden said. Indeed, current acreage is almost double the state’s 14,500-acre total in 1993.

“If I’m pessimistic at all — and maybe I should say it’s more aggravated — it’s because of the dad-gum Mexican fruit fly,” Murden said.

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About the Author
Ernie Neff

Ernie Neff

Senior Correspondent at Large