California Citrus Conference Calls Attention to Key Industry Issues

Tacy CalliesCalifornia Corner

By Len Wilcox

The Citrus Research Board’s (CRB) annual California Citrus Conference took place in October in Visalia. This year’s event included a celebration of the organization’s 50th anniversary.

California Citrus Conference
(Photo courtesy of the California Citrus Research Board)

The CRB is an important resource to California’s citrus industry. It awards more than $7 million each year to researchers throughout the state. Since 2008, CRB has focused much of its efforts on huanglongbing (HLB) with approximately $33 million spent to date to find methods to control the catastrophic disease. CRB also provides funds for developing new citrus varieties, supports University of California (UC) research center operations, and provides funds for the Citrus Clonal Protection Program and California Citrus Quality Council.

This year’s conference placed a strong emphasis on the topics of Asian citrus psyllid and HLB. Other subjects discussed included economics, production projections and weather issues. Guest speakers included experts from Brazil, New York, California and Tennessee.

Two speakers, however, sounded alarm bells about current political trends that are affecting the profitability of California citrus production. They were Bruce Babcock, agricultural economist and professor in the School of Public Policy at UC Riverside, and Joel Nelsen, California Citrus Mutual (CCM) president.

Babcock’s studies show the California citrus industry faces two existential risks. The first is HLB, which, as shown by the devastation in Florida, could transform the California citrus industry. The efforts to keep HLB out of commercial groves have so far been successful, but Babcock believes it is only a matter of time until HLB starts to impact commercial production. The second risk is one that affects most of California agriculture and is often overlooked: the cost of new regulations.

“People don’t often think about the impact of regulations,” Babcock said. He explained that new California regulations increased the production cost for citrus more than $700 per acre. “That’s a big number,” he said.

The problem is exacerbated by the increase in the hourly wage recently passed by the legislature. “Citrus is labor intensive,” he said, pointing out that the new higher wage cost is a bigger factor in citrus production than it is with crops that are mechanically harvested.

Babcock said that regulations adopted by California, but not by other states or countries,reduce the competitiveness of California citrus. This could potentially price California fruit out of the market.

The theme of increased costs with lower returns was continued by Nelson, who is well known for his 36 years of leadership at CCM and his long-term activism in support of California’s citrus industry.

Nelsen said the future of the California citrus industry has changed, and it’s not for the better. “There’s a lot of pessimism in the industry because Sacramento has been a negative factor in the future of our industry, and costs have risen,” he said. “Babcock’s study pointed out they’ve risen dramatically in the past few years.So how are we going to overcome that? How are we going to overcome trade barriers? How are we going to overcome offshore competition? Can we sell our fruit for enough to make a profit? That’s what everybody is focused on.”

Nelsen pointed out that the trade picture has been dismal lately due to the ongoing trade war. “We export approximately 5.5 million cartons of oranges and approximately 1.5 million cartons of lemons to China every year. We’re going to be impacted,” he said. “We think we’re going to lose that market this year because of the high tariffs. Our fruit’s going to be priced extremely high when it lands in China.”

There is, however, cause for optimism. “KORUS was a home run for us,” said Nelson,referring to the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement recently signed.

“The whole idea is to create more opportunity for our industry to expand market share in foreign markets because we’re being inundated with products coming in,” said Nelson. “You’ve got South Africa; you’ve got Brazil; you’ve got Argentina. I could go on. The list is long, and as a result of that, the competitive factor gets to be problematic. So we’re in business to make money. But we’re also in business to provide a good piece of fruit. We’ve got to make sure we still have the opportunity to do that.”

HLB remains a major threat to citrus worldwide. Some citrus-growing regions have been dealing with HLB far longer than California, with varying degrees of success. Brazil is reported to have achieved a good level of control of the disease.

Silvio Lopes, one of the speakers at the California Citrus Conference, works with HLB issues in the Brazilian citrus industry. He created a course titled “Control of Citrus Diseases and Pests” and several training programs for HLB prevention/management plans for Caribbean and South American countries. Since 2004, Lopes has worked as a researcher at Fundecitrus, a private association in São Paulo sponsored by citrus growers.

According to Lopes, over 200 million trees were threatened when HLB hit Brazilian citriculture sometime before 2004. It caused deep concerns about the future of an industry that produced the most volume of concentrated orange juice in the world.

In Brazil, HLB has been difficult to control, but much progress has been made. Lopes shared some statistics at the conference. Symptomatic tree incidence nearly doubled each year in Brazil from 2009 (0.9 percent) to 2012 (7 percent), but remained between 16.8 and 18.2 percent in the last four years.

Experimental data and grower experiences called attention to the need for rigorous psyllid control and infected tree removal. Control measures (inspection and symptomatic tree elimination, psyllid control and pathogen-free tree plantings) have been constantly improved and expanded, said Lopes. 

California Citrus Conference

Acknowledgment: AgNet West’s Taylor Hillman, Brian German and Danielle Leal provided input for this article.

Len Wilcox is a retired scientist who ran a weekly newspaper and has written for agricultural publications since the 1980s. His commentary, “The Western View,” is a regular feature on the AgNet West Radio Network.

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