Farmers await sigh of relief - Morgan Hill Times: County

Farmers await sigh of relief

Today could mark the end of Oriental fruit fly infestation as biologists check bait traps

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Posted: Monday, September 10, 2012 5:58 pm | Updated: 12:15 pm, Wed Sep 19, 2012.

It's looking like the end of the line for a certain winged nuisance known as the Oriental fruit fly, which has the potential to wreak havoc on crops and generate devastating financial impacts on farmers.

Nearly two months after four of the pesky insects were originally found in late July near the area of Tennant Avenue and Monterey Road in Morgan Hill – subsequently triggering an “infestation” determination along with heavy trapping and bait station applications – farmers may finally be able to breathe a sigh of relief.

Today, biologists from the California Department of Food and Agriculture will check hundreds of traps in Morgan Hill for signs of the flies, which are about the size of a pinhead and wield the ability to infest more than 230 host plants from peaches to plums to peppers to cucumbers.

If no more flies are identified during today’s inspection, the “infestation” will be over and “local growers can breathe a sigh of relief,” noted Jennifer Scheer of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau.

If officials find two additional fruit flies in the same area (as the initial discovery) before the current life cycle of the insect comes to an end today, a quarantine will be triggered – although Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Eric Wylde with the Santa Clara County Department of Agriculture says those chances are slim at this point.

As of Tuesday, “the proof will be in the pudding,” he said. “Every day that passes the likelihood is better that we don't find any additional flies…the further we get away from the July finds, the less likely that we will pick up additional flies.”

That being said, South County growers aren't entirely out of the weeds.

“There is always potential that a fly is found, and then we can continue with our treatment program,” cautioned Wylde on Monday.

By “treatment program,” Wylde is referring to the continued application of fruit fly bait stations throughout Morgan Hill.

Treatment entails a bait station laden with a silver dollar-sized “goopy” substance of female insect pheromones and pesticides that attracts the male fruit fly and interrupts the species' reproduction. That substance is placed high in the air on trees along streets in the area and telephone polls.

Regardless of whether Tuesday’s sweep yields additional male fruit flies, subsequent bait station applications will be made every two weeks through the insect's next life cycle ending Nov. 22 according to Wylde, who called the measure a “precaution.”

There are two other variables that can trigger quarantine action, he added, besides the trapping of six male fruit flies.

“If we were to detect a property with oriental fruit fly larvae, or a mated female, that triggers an immediate quarantine in and of itself,” Wylde warned.

When your livelihood depends on your produce, “quarantine” is an ugly word.

Ian Teresi of George Chiala Farms previously explained that a quarantine is the “double whammy” of destruction – hitting farmers on all sides by rotting their crops, placing a hold on shipment and costing each grower thousands of dollars for the spray treatment.

“These flies are pretty ferocious and reproduce pretty fast,” Teresi said. “It's devastating any way you look at it.”

With a four-week spray treatment costing each farmer $160 per acre, growers like Teresi – who has about 60 acres of bell pepper crops – would be looking at a $9,000 bill. That's in addition to money lost from rotted crops.

About the Oriental fruit fly

The tiny flies – which are about the size of a pinhead and native to Southern Asia – burrow inside fruit, lay eggs and populate.

If not eradicated, they threaten a multimillion-dollar industry. The last county infestation in Milpitas caused major concern in 2010, and was fully eradicated in July 2011, according to the county.

Infestations have occurred in California over the last 30 years and have been successfully wiped out before any critical damage, according to County Agriculture Commissioner Kevin O'Day. The fruit fly is typically found in urban areas, he said, because they “hitchhike” on fruit that is from an infested area such as Hawaii or the Philippines.

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