Agri Leader

Farm bill funds $5.4 million in pest control efforts

As a result of the new federal farm bill passed by Congress earlier this year, Florida will receive $5.4 million in new funding for five critical pest control and eradication programs.

Because of its warm climate and location close to the Caribbean region, Florida is perpetually threatened by invasive pests and plant diseases. One or two new exotic arthropod species - meaning any kind of insect not native to Florida - are introduced into the state every month, although not all are threats to agriculture.

One ongoing key program is giant African land snail mitigation. The snails are a threat to more than 500 plant species, including many commercial crops. "They're a huge threat to commercial agriculture," said Denise Feiber, publication information officer for the Division of Plant Industry at Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS).

When the snails were first identified in Miami-Dade County in September 2011, FDACS immediately deployed an extermination team. Since then, 50 permanent staff members have worked daily to survey the population and apply bait to kill them. The snail has been identified on 640 properties in 26 core locations. To date, almost 140,000 have been collected. A new FDA-approved bait introduced in March has already increased mortality rates, Feiber said.

Another program funded by the new farm bill allocation is detector dog inspections. The agency's innovative "Don't Pack a Pest" consumer education effort designed to prevent the importation of pests from Caribbean airports and other ports of entry already uses U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture detector dogs to inspect passenger baggage. Now, FDACS will develop its own dog unit to inspect large parcels intended for mailing or shipment by services such as FedEx or UPS. Several new dogs will be trained to detect giant African land snails and serve as final proof that an area has been cleared of them.

A third key goal is protection of Florida's avocado production from the threat of laurel wilt.

"We've been working on that for several years with the avocado industry, particularly with surveying of the redbay ambrosia beetle, which is how laurel wilt disease is vectored," Feiber said. Avocados have become of Florida's fastest-growing in recent years. "It's now one of our most important crops," Feiber said.

Some funding will also be allocated to honeybee pest and disease surveys. FDACS participates in ongoing national surveys to determine which pests and diseases are impacting the apiary industry.

"Colony collapse disorder has been a huge problem, for unknown reasons, in recent years," Feiber said. "We've been losing huge numbers of managed bee colonies. So it is critical that we continue to participate in this work, since Florida is a state that provides not only our own pollination services for our agricultural industry, but we also provide bees to a number of other states for their pollination services, including in California for their almond grove pollination."

And finally, some of the new funding will also be targeted at the broad efforts underway to fight the devastating effects of the HLB virus, known as citrus greening. Ongoing work to combat citrus canker will also be funded.

In addition, a number of bio-control projects are being funded by the farm bill. Bio-control projects involve the development and deployment of natural solutions to invasive pests. For example, since 1998, the Dundee Biological Control Laboratory in Polk County has bred and released a tiny wasp, Tamarixia radiata, that feeds on the Asian citrus psyllid, the vector for HLB. Those efforts have been a major weapon in the fight against greening.

But the ongoing bio-control initiatives target a number of invasive pests.

"Our scientists go to various countries to find out what the natural enemies of a pest are and then study them to see if they could be released here and have no negative impact on anything but the targeted pest," Feiber said.

Trevor Smith, chief of FDACS's bureau of methods development and biological control, noted

that each of the department's programs is designed to be either a pro-active approach to preventing an invasion or an active eradication effort is an invasion is detected.

"What's important is that we are not 'reactionary,'" Smith said. "With many of our activities, such as surveys for exotic pests, we're actually looking at the movement of some of these very significant pests and diseases around the world and anticipating their arrival."

And in instances where a new pest is identified, the department's "Early Detection, Rapid Response" (EDRR) program is intended to rapidly inform growers and get control measures in place.

Recent EDRR success stories, Smith said, include 2010 and 2011 responses to Mediterranean fruit fly invasions in Boca Raton and Pompano Beach. "In both cases, we responded instantly to a detection and we had achieved eradication within about three months," Smith said.

He added that Florida's pest control and eradication efforts, including its broad collaboration with educational institutions such as University of Florida and federal agencies such as U.S./ Customs and Border Patrol, serve as a standard of excellence for the rest of the country.

"I've got enough experience working with other states and other countries," he said, "to know that we have a truly unique situation in Florida with our collaborative efforts."

And most important, he said, those efforts are successful in protecting the state's $108 billion agricultural industry.