Thursday, February 4, 2016
HLB found among Southern California trees, insects
By David Castellon
For nearly eight years, California’s citrus industry has lived in fear of Asian citrus psyllids infected with the huanglongbing bacteria migrating across the southern part of the state and heading north, where they could infect commercial citrus trees and devastate the state’s citrus industry.
Some of those worst fears are being realized as word is spreading that a group of psyllids found to be infected with the bacteria — also known as “HLB” — have been found since the middle of last year in the Southern California community of San Gabriel and La Puente, the latest earlier this month.
Alyssa Houtby, a spokeswoman for California Citrus Mutual said Wednesday, said the La Puente psyllid was captured alive sometime in December, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture notified industry officials on Dec., 21 that it had tested positive for HLB.
In addition, a dozen HLB-infected citrus trees have been found since July within a few blocks of each other in some San Gabriel neighborhoods, about 14 miles to the northwest, La Puente, said Jay Van Rein, a spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
No public announcement of the find was made by CDFA, said Van Rein, explaining that the finds were just a few miles from where what had been the only detections of a group of HLB-infected psyllids on a citrus tree that also tested positive in 2012 in a Hacienda Heights neighborhood.
As such, five additional samples of syllids found since last year weren’t considered new HLB finds, as they were in the same area of the first, he said.
Those new finds were based on samples of multiple aphid-sized psyllids combined in order to have enough material to test. Four of those HLB-positive samples of insects were collected live by CDFA inspectors in July and August, and the latest sample was collected in mid-December in La Puente, Van Rein said.
Wednesday afternoon, Houtby said officials with Citrus Mutual, the Exeter-based trade association representing about 2,200 California citrus growers, were given an update by phone by CDFA officials on the HLB finds. They were also informed of efforts to locate what could be one or more citrus trees infected with HLB in the La Puente area.
“It’s concerning to find a positive psyllid,” she said, adding that because pysllids contract and spread HLB by feeding on citrus trees, it’s likely more infected trees are in the area where the infected insect was found, and it may not be the last two infected trees found in San Gabriel earlier this month.
“It’s very concerning because as long as the [infected] tree is in the ground, it’s contagious, and a psyllid can fly to the tree and spread the disease.”
It’s a concern throughout California’s citrus industry, said Robert LoBue, general manager for farming operations for LoBue Bros., a Lindsay-based grower, packer and shipper of citrus.
LoBue, who oversees about 1,000 acres of citrus groves, noted, “I have a big stake in how this turns out.”
Asian citrus psyllids have spread HLB around the world in countries that include Brazil, China, Cuba and Mexico, as well as parts of the U.S. And since the insects and infected trees were first discovered in 2005 in Florida, the nation’s top citrus-growing state, they’ve cost their industry billions of dollars.
There is no cure for HLB or any way to inoculate trees against it, and over the course of years the bacteria causes citrus trees to produce mottled, bad-tasting fruit before dying.
“Florida is well into the endgame,” said LoBue, noting that the state used to produce 250 million 90-pound cartons of citrus a year, but it has lost so much acreage from HLB that production is down to the 80-100 million-carton range.
And the number of juice production plants in Florida — where most of the commercial citrus in that state goes — had declined from 13 to just a couple, he said.
If HLB gets a strong enough foothold in California, the decline of the citrus industry here could be worse, because damaged, bad-tasting oranges and other citrus can be mixed with better-tasting juice to hide bad flavors, allowing Florida farmers to stay in operation even when their crops are in the throes of infection, LoBue said.
“In California, we are mostly fresh fruit,” so people eat most of their citrus, and if it looks bad and tastes bad from HLB — which isn’t a danger to humans — they will not buy it, he explained.
“This market can’t stand that.”
And Tulare County could be one of the worst-affected areas in such a scenario, as it’s the top citrus-growing county in the U.S., with sales of navel and Valencia oranges alone totaling more than $962.9 million in 2014.
Since the discovery of pysllids in southern California in 2008, California’s citrus industry had put financial backing into research looking to beat the disease, along with state and federal programs to try to slow the migration of psyllids north into the Central Valley, the state’s primary citrus-growing region.
Though some psyllids have made their way here and as far north as the Bay Area and San Francisco, by far the larger concentrations of the insect remain in Southern California.
Houtby said the infected psyllid was found by a CDFA inspector doing a routine inspection last month of citrus trees residential areas in La Puente. And while there have been no positives among tested insects caught here in the Valley, those psyllids were caught in traps and were too desiccated to determine if they carried HLB, officials with the state agency have said.
While it’s disappointing and worrisome that more infected psyllids and trees have been found, LoBue said it’s no surprise.
“The bad thing about this, there has never been a case where they have found HLB and psyllids and could stop it,” he said, noting that HLB-infected trees have been found in Texas’ citrus belt in the Rio Grande Valley in growing numbers in recent years.
He estimated that “They’ve got 10 or 15 years before they’re like Florida.
As for what’s happening in California, LoBue said. “Its’ another step in the progression of the disease. You knew it was going to happen eventually. This is a really true test for California,” trying to keep this HLB “hot spot” contained.
If not, he said, “Once you get enough trees infected, it just multiplies.”
Adding to the problem is current methods to test trees for the bacteria can’t find it in recently-infected trees, even though those trees can spread HLB to psyllids feeding on their branches and leaves, LoBue said.
The infected insects then can spread the bacteria to the next citrus trees on which they feed.
“My worst fear is they find it this year or next year in another tree 20 miles away [from the latest finds. Then in another year they find it in two or three more locations” and the finds of infected citrus trees multiply from there, LoBue said.
Beekeepers fall victim to theft as hive rental prices rise
By John Cox
The bee rustlers are at it again.
Beekeepers are reporting an escalation in bee hive thefts just weeks before the Central Valley almond bloom, considered the world’s largest and most lucrative pollination event.
Hives are typically contained in white containers the size of a bankers box. Each is expected to rent for about $200 apiece during this month’s bloom.
That price, a record or near-record that is up roughly five-fold during the past decade, has been driven higher by years of mass die-offs attributed to bee viruses, mites and other ailments.
What’s especially troubling is that bees continue to be in short supply. Many have already been reserved by local growers who rely on the insects to carry the pollen their crop requires to grow.
Beekeepers say thefts appear to have become more common this year than ever before.
“Bee theft didn’t used to be much of a problem, but now … you can get more than $200 a pop” by stealing, said Joy Pendell, media director for the California State Beekeepers Association. The group offers a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a hive thief.
There is some concern the rash of thefts will end up pushing hive rental prices even higher.
Beatris Sanders, executive director of the Kern County Farm Bureau, said beekeepers may have to charge extra fees as a kind of insurance to help cover the cost of hive losses. She said the crime trend also increases talk about the wisdom of planting so-called self-pollinating nut trees, which require fewer bees to pollinate.
Bee theft is frustratingly difficult to thwart, although satellite tracking technology may make protection easier for beekeepers with money to invest.
Thieves, who in some cases have been found to be beekeepers themselves, typically spot a pallet loaded with hives lying on the side of a back road. Under the cover of darkness, they use a forklift to place the pallet onto their truck bed.
Then they take the hives somewhere they can grind away brands and other identifying marks, often repainting the hive or placing internal frames into their own containers as a way of disguising the theft.
Beekeeper Jack Wickerd suspects this is what happened to 200 hives his company left on a patch of Kern County desert just off Interstate 5 last month.
“I sent the guys out there to pick them up and they were already gone,” said the co-owner of Happie Bee Co., based in Lamont and Menifee. The hives represented about 5 percent of the company’s colonies.
Wickerd estimated the theft as costing Happie Bee roughly $100,000 in lost revenue, including the lost pollination rental fees and the value of honey he expected the bees to produce.
After filing a police report on the crime, he said the company’s main hope now rests with the Happie Bee’s brand ID on the boxes and internal frames: CA0330333H.
“We’re just hoping that maybe some farmer will notice the name or the brand number on the hives or something,” he said.
San Jose Mercury News
$25 million effort to save farmland on the San Mateo County coast
By Paul Rogers
HALF MOON BAY — Worried that artichokes, Brussels sprouts and strawberries are losing ground to trophy homes and subdivisions, a Bay Area conservation group that has spent much of the past 38 years saving land for parks and wildlife is launching a new effort to help a different species: farmers on the San Mateo County coast.
The Peninsula Open Space Trust, a nonprofit organization based in Palo Alto, on Thursday plans to announce it will spend $25 million over the next 10 years on a campaign to triple the amount of protected farmland between Pacifica and the Santa Cruz County line.
The idea is to set in motion a kind of reverse sprawl.
Since 1984, the Bay Area’s nine counties have lost nearly 200,000 acres of cropland, orchards and vineyards, much of it to development. In San Mateo County, which has some of the most expensive land in the United States, there’s been a 35 percent drop of such farmland over the same time period, from 7,815 acres in 1984 to 5,121 now, according to the state Department of Conservation.
“We’ve been losing land for so long. And we want it to stop,” said Walter Moore, president of the land trust, which is commonly known by its initials, POST.
“One of the most direct ways that people connect to the land is through the food they eat.”
The group — which in decades past has drawn suspicion and even criticism from some farm interests along the coast — plans to buy land, including property not currently being cultivated, and then resell it to farmers, while keeping the development rights. It also plans to buy development rights from existing farmers who are willing sellers.
Such “conservation easements” dramatically lower the appraised value of property because they usually prohibit nearly all new construction. At a lower value, farmers — particularly younger farmers — can more easily afford to buy the land. And even if developers want to purchase it later, they can’t build subdivisions or strip malls on it because POST owns the development rights.
POST hopes to triple the amount of such “protected” farmland from the current 750 acres to 2,250 acres along the San Mateo County coast in the next decade, while increasing the number of protected farms from 11 to 33.
One such deal two years ago illustrates how the concept bloomed.
In 2014, POST sold 295 acres in Moss Beach to Dave Lea, a third-generation farmer whose family dates back to the 1920s in San Mateo County.
The property, located directly across Highway 1 from the Half Moon Bay Airport, had for generations been part of the 4,200-acre Rancho Corral de Tierra property. Lea, his father, Ed, and their business partners, had rented the land to grow Brussels sprouts, English peas, pumpkins, fava beans, artichokes and other crops since the mid-1960s.
But for years, previous owners, including Westinghouse, proposed building golf courses and thousands of homes on the broader parcel.
“Their goal was to develop the land and build estates,” said Dave Lea, 62. “There was always uneasiness. A few of the owners put political pressure on us to quit. But we hung in there.”
Eventually, in 2001, POST, bankrolled by wealthy Silicon Valley donors and large foundations, purchased the entire 4,200 acres for $29 million from Robert Naify, a San Francisco billionaire who once controlled United Artists theaters, and other partners who had planned to build a Jack Nicklaus golf course and 40 or more luxury homes.
POST transferred nearly all of the land to the National Park Service. It is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is open to the public. The San Mateo County Farm Bureau and several Republican congressman balked at the idea of including a working farm in a national park, so in a compromise the land with the row crops was left out of the park boundary.
Farm workers pick brussels sprouts at Cabrillo Farms in Moss Beach, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016.
By 2014, POST kept the development rights and sold the 295 acres to the Lea family for $1.2 million — or about $4,100 an acre. That was roughly a 90 percent discount in an area where farmland can sell for $30,000 to $40,000 an acre.
“That made it affordable,” said Lea. “Otherwise, we couldn’t have bought it.”
Today the family’s Cabrillo Farms is prospering. Much of its produce goes to Bay Area restaurants and supermarkets. It currently employs 17 people.
“If you want to eat, you have to preserve farmland,” Lea said.
POST says it aims to help growers of conventional growers and organic crops. One younger farmer the group is working with is Ryan Casey, 39, a first-generation farmer who learned agriculture at UC Santa Cruz then started Blue House Farm in Pescadero.
Casey recently rented 74 acres from POST along La Honda Road in San Gregorio. He sells organic carrots, onions, lettuce and other produce at restaurants and farmers markets from San Francisco to San Mateo and delivers to subscribers a box of fruits and vegetables for $23 a week.
“I like the work. I like being outside. I like fixing things,” he said. “Farming is a good fit for me.”
Jess Brown, executive director of the San Mateo County Farm Bureau, said some agricultural land has been lost over the years in the kind of deals in which POST specializes. And with strict zoning rules, there aren’t many huge new developments going up on the San Mateo County coast.
“When anything new is introduced, anybody has concerns about what the intent is,” he said. “Are farmers going to be able to have long-term leases? How do you have public hikers where cattle are gazing? Our intent is to make sure that who ever does what to the land, it remains in farming.”
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN, firstname.lastname@example.org
Surge in feedback extends comment period for transmission line project
By Andrew Creasey
The public comment period for a controversial proposed electric transmission line project was extended by 60 days after project leaders were inundated by letters from local leaders requesting more time to evaluate the project’s impacts.
The comment period for the Colusa-Sutter Transmission Line, also called the CoSu line, will now end April 18.
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District and the Western Area Power Administration are spearheading the proposal to construct a 500-kilovolt electric transmission line that, depending on the final project design, would cross either 27 or 44 miles in both counties.
The Sutter County Board of Supervisors, the California Rice Commission, the Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau all wrote letters requesting an extension, as did Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Plumas Lake, and State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber.
Gallagher and Nielsen, in a joint letter, said the original comment period was not sufficient to address the implications to residents, businesses, farmers and natural resources.
In a letter to the project leaders, Jon Munger, president of the Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau, said the extension will allow for more time to assess the power line’s impact on farmland and migratory birds.
The project has raised concerns with local farmers and the Sutter County Board of Supervisors, who fear potential negative impacts to agricultural operations. At recent public scoping meetings, farmers said the new power lines over their fields would create havoc for crop dusters and take swaths of land out of production.
Supervisor Barbara LeVake, whose district includes much of the land the proposed project will bisect, said she was appreciative of the extension.
“But I don’t think it changes any of the concerns the local growers and county may have in terms of impacts to the economy,” LeVake said.
CONTACT reporter Andrew Creasey at 749-4780 and on Twitter @AD_Creasey.
Milking it: critics take aim at new environmental guidelines for dairy industry
The US dairy industry is outlining ways ranchers and producers can reduce their environmental impact. But do the new guidelines go far enough?
By Sarah Shemkus
Brian Medeiros generally keeps the operation at Medeiros & Son simple and traditional. The Central California farm’s 2,500 cows get milked three times a day and the resulting milk is shipped to area processors and turned into cheese and butter.
“We’re not the newest, most fandangled-type facility,” said Medeiros, a second-generation dairy farmer.
In recent years, some new farming technology has crept in, with the goal of making farms more sustainable. Medeiros installed GPS devices on tractors to make sure they’re not covering unnecessary ground. The milking pumps have new, more efficient drives. And this year, the farm erected a 1-megawatt solar power system that will provide about 85% of the farm’s energy needs.
Medeiros is just one farmer in a $36bn industry that is attempting to move in a more sustainable direction. To that end, Innovation Center for US Dairy, an industry group representing about 80% of the dairy production in the US, has released proposed updates to its Stewardship and Sustainability Guide for US Dairy, a set of voluntary sustainability metrics for dairy farm operations and producers that aim to help the industry respond to the environmental need and consumer demand for more sustainable practices.
The Innovation Center was founded in 2008 with the goal of creating a shared sustainability vision for the dairy industry. It released the first version of its sustainability standards in 2013. This version, still in effect today, includes guidelines for measuring and communicating energy use, greenhouse gas impact and animal care on the farm level. At the producer level, the guidelines suggest best practices for water use and efficiency, employee benefits and health and community engagement, as well as energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
The new version, which is open to comment until 10 March, adds metrics for water use and quality, soil quality, biodiversity, waste management and feed management to the on-farm practices section. For producers, new metrics on waste management and air quality have been added.
“There’s the potential here for a very large percentage of the dairy industry to be using these to communicate their sustainability and environmental stewardship goals,” said Chad Frahm, senior vice president of sustainability at the Innovation Center.
However, while many in the dairy industry are excited about the new guidelines, voices in the sustainability field question whether voluntary measures have the power to effect needed change.
“It really all depends on what those standards are and the situation surrounding those standards,” said Chris Hunt, special advisor on food and agriculture for the Grace Communications Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit focused on food and environmental issues. “I don’t think voluntary industry guidelines should take the place of regulations.”
According to Frahm, the goal of updating the sustainability standards is twofold. Firstly, the guidelines should give dairy farms and producers a way to quantify their sustainability efforts, helping them better tell the story of their eco-friendly practices to a market that is increasingly concerned with sourcing its food responsibly. Secondly, the standards should help inspire farmers to improve their operations.
“They’ll run through some of the metrics and say, ‘Where do I compare? How do I get better?’” Frahm said.
The project is still in the early stages, he said. Some farmers are just starting to learn about the standards, while others are already implementing them, using the guidelines to assess and report on their sustainability. He hopes, however, that the document will be a catalyst in the industry, creating one set of standards that can be widely agreed upon and adopted.
Already, dairy operations of all types have made moves toward more sustainable operations, some even going beyond what the standards currently outline. The Oregon Dairy in Pennsylvania has installed an anaerobic digester that captures methane from manure and turns it into electricity and heat. The Hilmar Cheese Company’s locations in California and Texas recover almost all of the water removed from milk in the cheese-making process, treat it, and use the resulting water for crop and landscape irrigation.
Some sustainability experts agree that voluntary standards can be effective at improving businesses’ practices, perhaps even more so than regulations. As long as voluntary guidelines include provisions for transparency and accountability, they can be more flexible and encourage greater innovation than enforced regulations can, said Suzy Friedman, director of sustainable agriculture for the Environmental Defense Fund. According to Friedman, laws should always exist to ensure a base level of responsible behavior. However, the structured and often time-consuming process of debating and developing regulations can make the resulting rules restrictive and difficult to change. Voluntary standards, however, can respond more nimbly to changes in market conditions or available technology.
At the same time, Friedman said companies will want to comply with guidelines in order to satisfy a market clamoring for sustainable food options. “I hear routinely from food companies that their consumers are asking them relentlessly, ‘Where is my food coming from, how is it grown, what’s in it?’” she said. “Food companies realize that their economic wellbeing and support from their customers in part depends on their ability to answer those questions.”
Furthermore, those making the rules may not fully understand the industry they are trying to regulate. Medeiros points to the California Air Resources Board’s stated goal of reducing methane emissions by 40% by 2030. Some promising systems exist to recapture the methane given off by manure, he said, but it would not be possible to meet the state goals without also finding a way to reduce enteric methane emissions – essentially, cow belches. And there is not yet any commercially available technology that can achieve that goal, he said.
“The only way to reduce [enteric] methane from a cow is to get rid of the cow,” Medeiros said.
Some sustainability advocates however are not optimistic about the role of voluntary standards, particularly those generated within the industry itself. If one standard comes to dominate an industry, it is far too easy for consumers to assume a product marketed as sustainable is indeed sustainable, without really understanding what practices back up the claim, according to Grace’s Chris Hunt. “There’s definitely a risk of greenwashing happening,” Hunt said.
The livestock industry is already under-regulated, Hunt added. Most operations pack too many animals into too little space, which is bad for both human health and animal welfare, he said. A single cow, he noted, produces 23 times as much waste as one human; an operation with a few thousand cows can generate as much waste as a small city, without the benefit of a sewer system to keep pollution in check. The overuse of antibiotics is also a problem in the industry. Regulations, not voluntary measures, are the best way to handle these issues.
According to Hunt, once an industry produces its own voluntary rules, creating the sense that the problems are being tackled, it can be even harder to convince lawmakers to take action.
“It’s great that the industry is trying to become more responsible,” Hunt said. “But I just think small improvements shouldn’t be presented as the achievement of sustainability.”
Food industry looks to Congress as GMO labeling law nears
By Mary Clare Jalonick
WASHINGTON – The food industry is pressuring Congress to act before the state of Vermont requires food labels for genetically modified ingredients.
At issue is how food companies will deal with Vermont’s law. They could make separate food packages just for the state, label all their items with genetically modified ingredients or withdraw from the small Vermont market. The law kicks in by July, but the companies have to start making those decisions now.
The food industry wants Congress to pre-empt Vermont’s law and bar mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods before it goes into effect. They argue that GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are safe and a patchwork of state laws isn’t practical. Labeling advocates have been fighting state-by-state to enact the labeling, with the eventual goal of a national standard.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack brought the parties together twice this month to see if they could work out a compromise. But agreement won’t be easy, as the industry staunchly opposes mandatory labels. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are divided, too, but agree that a compromise needs to be worked out before this summer.
A look at the debate as the food industry and Congress wrestle with labeling of engineered foods:
WHAT’S A GMO, ANYWAY?
Genetically modified seeds are engineered in laboratories to have certain traits, like resistance to herbicides. The majority of the country’s corn and soybean crop is now genetically modified, with much of that going to animal feed. Corn and soybeans are also made into popular processed food ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soybean oil.
The food industry says about 75 percent to 80 percent of foods contain genetically modified ingredients.
While there is little scientific concern about the safety of those GMOs on the market, advocates for labeling say not enough is known about their risks.
The food industry has been battling the labeling advocates for several years, spending millions to fight ballot initiatives and bills in state legislatures that would require labeling of genetically modified foods. They have also challenged Vermont’s law in court.
Industry-backed legislation that passed the House last year would have blocked any such state laws. But that bill has stalled in the Senate.
The Food and Drug Administration has said GMOs on the market now are safe, and the federal government does not support mandatory labels. But supporters of labeling counter that consumers have a right to know what’s in their foods, and say Congress shouldn’t be trying to pre-empt states.
So far, Vermont is the only state set to require labeling. Maine and Connecticut have passed similar laws, but those measures don’t take effect unless neighboring states follow suit.
Hours of talks with Vilsack haven’t produced compromise. The former Iowa governor hasn’t taken sides on the issue, but he has previously suggested some sort of digital labeling that consumers could access with their smart phones or in-store scanners.
The food industry has had similar ideas, introducing voluntary digital labels last year that could provide consumers with detailed information about products. Information could also be accessed by an online search.
Labeling advocates have frowned on digital labels, saying they discriminate against people who don’t have smart phones, computers or the know-how to use them.
“Consumers shouldn’t have to have a high-tech smartphone and a 10-gigabyte data plan to know what’s in their food,” said Scott Faber, head of the national Just Label It Campaign, after Vilsack spoke publicly about the idea early last year.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., says he wants to take up a bill soon, before Vermont’s law goes into effect. The panel’s top Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota have been working to find bipartisan compromise.
“We’re not there yet,” Hoeven said earlier this month.
COMPANIES GO ON THEIR OWN
As Congress has stalled on the issue, some companies are already prepared to deal with the Vermont law.
Campbell Soup said earlier this month it now supports mandatory national labeling for products containing genetically modified ingredients, and that it will stop backing efforts opposing the disclosures.
The company said about three-quarters of its products contain GMOs, and released a mock-up of the label it would use to comply if Vermont’s law goes into effect. It says “Partially produced with genetic engineering” in small print at the bottom.
Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison has been outspoken about the need for big food makers to adapt to changing tastes.