Citrus quarantine poses vexing problem

The recent quarantine imposed on South Texas citrus producers because of the emergence of the sapote fruit fly is leaving growers disgruntled and consumers confused.

And no wonder. Groves on one side of the road will be quarantined, the other side not. The ruling has been applied to about 5,000 acres of oranges and grapefruit in the Rio Grande Valley.

The consumers affected are mostly “Winter Texans” heading home who always take a few bushels of grapefruit with them. Now they are told these grapefruit may be confiscated at the checkpoint if purchased within the quarantined area.

Yet where these tourists are going — back to the North Country — there is no danger of the tropical-minded sapote fly even surviving. Travelers have been told to purchase citrus at stands located beyond the checkpoint. But these stands are not necessarily selling fruit grown outside the quarantine area.

“The quarantine has hit us hard,” says Joyce Obst. She andher husband, Paul, have 120 acres of citrus within the quarantine area plus a popular fruit stand in Alamo, where they sell not only citrus but also other fruits and vegetables grown on their family farm.

Their operation isn't large enough to afford fumigation facilities, the use of which would allow them to sell their fruit. But they are observing the USDA rules nonetheless.

Customers look at the map and know that Obst Farms is in the quarantined area.

“But what many people don't realize is that we are definitely in compliance,” says Obst. “The fruit we pick from within the quarantined area all goes into juice.”

Before juicing, the fruit is kept covered, which prevents flies from laying eggs on it. This is in compliance with USDA rules

“And the fruit we sell at our stand comes from our packing shed and is produced outside the quarantine. Still, since news of the quarantine, their business has de-creased significantly.

“We're fortunate this ruling came at the end of the season,” says Obst, putting an optimistic spin on some bad news. In the more than 30 years they've been in the citrus business, she and Paul have lived through a lot of bad news, including the devastating '83 and '89 freezes, after which they had to re-establish their groves.

Obst Farms sales manager Martin Drewry echoed the sentiment.

“At least the quarantine didn't come at the beginning of the season.” He explained that finding five sapote flies in a given area, two flies each less than three miles apart, was the trigger for the USDA to act.

The sapote fly can be a serious threat since it lays eggs in the fruit. The eggs hatch into a maggot that eats the fruit. USDA officials say it was necessary to take immediate action to prevent spread of the sapote fly into other citrus growing areas of Texas.

Had the quarantine not been put into effect, they say, the fly could spread into these areas and possibly all of Texas would be under quarantine, a situation that would require regulatory treatment, such as fumigation of all exported fruit, causing Texas to lose important export markets.

Although no sapote fly larvae have been found, the quarantine will probably last the rest of the season.

Next year, who knows? Drewry says, “If they find five flies again, we'll be under another quarantine.”

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