Expert: Citrus bacteria killing trees is 'slow-moving disaster'

Expert: Citrus bacteria killing trees is 'slow-moving disaster'
Published: Oct. 6, 2016 at 12:34 AM CDT|Updated: Oct. 6, 2016 at 12:52 AM CDT
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PLAQUEMINES PARISH, LA (WVUE) - Spread through the rain - and even the wind - citrus canker latches on to citrus trees and slowly eats away at them.

"It is sort of taking a toll," LSU Ag Center horticulturalist Anna Pimmerman said. "It's a slow-motion disaster."

Citrus canker is a bacteria found on leaves and citrus fruit across South Louisiana. It has zero effect on humans. It's only cosmetic, and the fruit that trees yield is completely safe to eat. But over time, the bacteria can destroy an entire orchard.

"At this point, we don't have a cure," Pimmerman said. "We recommend the trees with the disease be removed."

The bacteria has been found in Plaquemines, St. John the Baptist, St. Bernard, Orleans, Lafourche, St. Charles and portions of Jefferson Parish.

Due to a quarantine, citrus fruit grown in the areas where canker is found must stay and be sold in those areas, which shrinks a grower's market and bottom line. Fruit may be moved outside of the quarantined area if it's treated with a USDA-approved chemical treatment.

"Basically, it's here to stay, and what we're recommending is that people plant resistant varieties. Certain types of citrus, like grapefruit, seem to be very much susceptible to [citrus canker], whereas the satsumas are a little bit more resistant," Pimmerman said.

Citrus canker spread from Florida across South Louisiana and even into parts of Texas. In many areas, the bacteria has been eradicated, but it keeps coming back, threatening the farmers' way of life.

Many growers have to change their strategy just to stay in business.

"There is nothing that can possibly penetrate this material, no type of insect, not even any type of bacteria. It just slows everything down. Wind even has a tough time getting in here," citrus grower Ricky Becnel said.

Becnel's family has grown citrus in Plaquemines Parish for seven generations. Seeing the effects that citrus canker has on the industry, he protects his nurseries with state-of-the-art greenhouses that are sealed tight so rain and the citrus canker bacteria can't get to the plants.

"We're kind of a unique blend of our knowledge, Florida's knowledge and California's, and we've built our own structure that we're very proud of," Becnel said.

The bacteria has made Becnel shift his focus to selling citrus trees rather than growing fruit to sell to consumers. The trees grown in the greenhouses at his nursery are not under quarantine and can be sold around the country. He believes the industry will survive despite the problem that citrus canker presents.

"This is not a detrimental problem that's going to hurt humans. This is for safety and to try and prolong our trees for generations," Becnel said.

Growers are putting fungicides on their crops to slow the spread of canker citrus, and researchers are working to find a cure.

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