Nurseries withdraw objections to plan after negotiations

By WES SANDER

Capital Press

SACRAMENTO -- A bill to create a state-run program to protect citrus nurseries from diseases has been signed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

SB 140, by Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, requires the Department of Food and Agriculture to create a Citrus Nursery Stock Cleanliness Program. The program would protect the state's nursery industry from citrus canker and Huanglongbing, among other diseases.

The bill proposes a mandatory program to better protect the state's $1 billion citrus industry, Corbett said. The state's current voluntary program isn't strong enough, he said.

The bill has seen little opposition, said Bob Blakely, director of industry relations with California Citrus Mutual.

"As growers, we want to be sure that we're assured of safe, healthy trees," Blakely said. "I think (these diseases) have got everybody focused on making sure that we have protections in place."

The bill's registered supporters include the California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers, California Citrus Mutual and California Citrus Nursery Society. Some nursery operators had opposed the bill, but later withdrew.

Issues of disagreement over program implementation and costs were worked out with opposing nurseries between last year and this year. Some have also raised concerns about the cost and fairness of quarantine structures that would affect regions of the state differently.

Citrus Mutual lobbyist Louie Brown said in a Senate committee hearing earlier this year that citrus growers are willing to absorb any costs passed down.

"Some of the costs that are going to be borne by these nurseries will be passed down to producers," Brown said. "(That's) a cost that we're willing to bear ... for the security of knowing that we have clean stock."

Orchardists have looked to recent events in Florida and seen urgency to create a structured program for curbing disease. The biggest potential threat to California orchards is now considered to be Huanglongbing, which has already caused extensive damage in Florida citrus.

Citrus canker, which has also attacked in Florida, is likewise prominent on the radar. The state's voluntary Citrus Pest Inspection Program doesn't offer sufficient protection from such diseases, Corbett said. Nursery producers have been trying to strengthen the rules for years.

Huanglongbing is caused by a bacterium carried by the tiny Asian citrus psyllid, which eats the leaves of trees. The disease, also known as greening, causes fruit to stay green and go bitter.

It spread through parts of Asia and Africa before showing up in Brazil in 2004. It appeared the following year in Florida, where it has claimed hundreds of thousands of acres of citrus.

Staff writer Wes Sander is based in Sacramento. E-mail: wsander@capitalpress.com.

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