Why share this?

Over the past few years, I’ve shared updates from our farm. Usually I like to share the moments and images that make farming a joy. Sometimes I post to give people an insight into farming that they might not otherwise have. Tonight’s post falls in the latter category.

Tomorrow morning we will be spraying the citrus trees in our Santa Paula orchard to help control the Asian Citrus Psyllid. The “ACP” is a vector for a bacterial disease called Haunglongbing (or “HLB”) which is deadly to citrus trees. More info on the pest and disease here.)


Picking some fruit for our household tonight before tomorrow’s treatment, I was able to spot multiple adult psyllids with my naked eye. I was even able to get this picture with my phone. This is an actual ACP, and that is my finger, in our grove today. 3/15/2016.

Usually farmers are reluctant to talk about spraying in a public forum. Why not simply let this pass unmentioned? Because it is too important. This pest/disease combo has destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of citrus in Florida because they were too late to stop it. We have been forewarned, and while the tools available to us aren’t perfect, they may slow the spread until some better options come available in the next few years. For now, Ventura County growers are voluntarily treating in a coordinated fashion to try to minimize the areas where ACP populations can flourish. Growers both large and small are part of this effort. All treatments are being done under the regulations established by the EPA, CDFA, California Department of Pesticide Regulation, and our Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner.

If I have generated any goodwill over the years, please believe me when I say that this is both important and our best opportunity to preserve California’s citrus trees for the future. This disease has spared no citrus… large orchard or small, backyard or commercial, conventional or organic.. it has not mattered in Florida. But we can still stop it here.

Thank you.


A silver lining?

The last week has seen some terribly cold weather in some of the citrus growing regions of California. Fortunately, it looks like we have escaped significant harm here at Petty Ranch, but the same cannot be said for many others.

It is against this backdrop that I came across this article in the Western Farm Press suggesting an upside to the freezing temperatures: Suppression of Asian Citrus Psyllid (ACP). In a nutshell, USDA study has found that psyllids are very susceptible to cold weather. Will this cold snap actually be a benefit to the citrus industry in the long run?

I  place the greatest hope in the chance that a freeze will reduce ACP populations in urban and suburban areas where eradication efforts are no longer being made. Every psyllid eliminated from these areas is a psyllid that can’t be transported to a place where it can do more harm. These “islands” of psyllid populations feed the infestations and reinfestations that threaten orchards. Reducing them should tangibly slow the spread of the insect and the disease (Huanlongbing, or HLB)that it carries.

It may even be that cold is enough to completely eliminate ACP colonies, either directly or by destroying all the green shoots and young leaves that the psyllids and their nymphs feed on. Weather that clears an area of infestation might be worth some degree of damage.

But will taking a bite out of their numbers be enough? I sure hope so, but I have grounds for skepticism. Citrus trees recover from freeze damage quite slowly…it takes at least a couple of years to fully recover. Insect populations can grow very rapidly. A population of ACP that has been diminished but not destroyed by cold could easily return before an orchard is back in production. For obvious reasons, we can’t hope that regular freezes will provide relief. Recurring frosts every few years might keep the insect in check, but at a terrible cost to the citrus business.

So does this study simply provide false hope? I wouldn’t go that far. Suppressing urban populations of the pest is certainly a good thing. But in the world of production citrus, anything less than a “100% kill” is probably insufficient. 

Tamarixia to the Rescue?

As of this week, Ventura County may have a new favorite insect: Tamarixia Radiata. Following research done at the University of California, Riverside by Dr. Mark Hoddle and his team, the USDA is now evaluating a plan to release Tamarixia as a bio-control on the Asian Citrus Psyllid (ACP), the vector for Huanglongbing (HLB) bacteria. Dr. Hoddle reports that the USDA has agreed to a “fast-track” review process, which could authorize release of Tamarixia by the end of the 2011.

The Asian Citrus Psyllid and the disease caused by HLB has been responsible for destroying tens of thousands of acres of citrus in Florida and other parts of the world. ACP is now well established in Los Angeles County, although the HLB disease has not yet been reported in California. Tamarixia offers the potential to suppress the ACP population in urban areas where pesticide applications are not a viable means for combating the pest.

What does this mean for Ventura County? For starters, we will not likely see many Tamarixia in our orchards and backyards any time soon. They will be most effectively employed reducing the ACP population in areas heavily infested. But the smaller the urban Los Angeles population of ACP is, the lower the probability of a full scale infestation in rural Ventura County. Should the HLB bacteria find its way to California, a minimal ACP population will be less capable of spreading the disease. This has huge economic implications for the citrus industry, as well as the backyard orange trees that are an iconic piece of Southern California. It could also eliminate the need for tremendous quantities of pesticides, good news to both farmers and their neighbors.

Figs and a Stinkin’ Acre

August and September have been busy months. Irrigation is always critical this time of year, and we are just concluding picking and pruning the lemons. It was particularly busy in the small end of the business: With lemons delivered to Ventura Limoncello, Meyer lemons and figs to the Sidecar, and additional Meyers into “mainstream/niche” markets, September was our biggest month yet for local and specialty fruit.

The experience has encouraged us to try to branch out a little further, so too new crops will be added to the mix. Garlic and Figs.

Now, I know, I mentioned figs already, but let me explain. For the past two seasons we have sold figs to chefs and caterers, but they have all come from the big “family tree” which is 50+ years old and is presumed to be a black mission varietal. What will be new is that we will have a dozen trees of mixed varietals, including Kadota, Brown Turkey, and Desert King. We hope with some new varieties we may find some which really click with our customers, thrive in our microclimate, and fruit through a longer window.

Garlic is something we are going to try on a very, very small scale. I’ll be very happy if we have a thousand pounds of marketable garlic, and despite the title of this piece, we will be committing far less than an acre to it. But I have learned that local garlic is very hard to come by, so I’m going to give it a shot. It will be quite a change from tree crops. One thing I think is underappreciated about agriculture is the vast differences in knowledge and infrastructure to grow different kinds of crops. I try to be polite when sustainably-minded suburban friends suggest that we just grow X instead of Y, but I have a line rattling around in my brain about the difference between painting a portrait and painting a house. Like painters, not all farmers do the same thing.

Continuing in the vein of new crops, next spring should see our first harvest of Star Ruby grapefruit, Sanguinelli blood oranges, and Cara Cara navel oranges. Probably not enough for any meaningful contribution to the bottom line, but it will be great to get the chance to introduce them to our customers (and eat more than one or two.)

Sustainability and viability are always on my mind, and  these factored into the garlic and fig decisions. Citrus fruit in California is potentially threatened by the Asian Citrus Psyllid insect, which is a vector for Citrus Greening disease, or Huanglongbing virus. This has devastated much of Florida’s citrus industry, and as excited as I am about new specialty citrus varietals, I need to hedge our bets. Garlic and figs? Not affected by it. Avocados have had a rough ride the past few years, because as a subtropical fruit, the “extremes” of Southern California weather can push them to their limits. Will our weather be more extreme over the next few years, as it has been for the last three? It seems prudent to think so. Garlic and figs are well known to be capable of thriving with much higher highs and much lower lows. The fact that they have lower summertime irrigation requirements has got to help too, don’t you think?