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Featured, from left: Cheri Abraham, Ph.D., Operations Manager/Entomologist, US Citrus, LLC; Anne Skaria; Mani Skaria, Ph.D., Founder, President, and CEO, US Citrus, LLC; Congressman Vicente González, D-McAllen, who serves on the Financial Services Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.; Lorena González; and Verónica Reyna, Executive Assistant/Office Manager, US Citrus, LLC, on Monday, May 27, 2019, promoting Persian Lime produced by the firm, which is located in Hargill northeast of Edinburg. (https://uscitrus.com/products/persian-lime-tree)

Photograph By ISMAEL GARCÍA

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Valley citrus industry could receive more than $124 million in federal funds through House Agricultural Appropriations legislation

By CHARLOTTE LARACY
and
LESLIE MARTÍNEZ

More than $124 million in federal funds to help protect the Valley citrus industry against pests and disease, along with $110 million to help fight similar dangers against the Texas cattle business, have been secured by Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, in the Fiscal Year 20 appropriations bill being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Cuellar announced the funding developments for the Valley citrus industry on Thursday, June 6, 2019, and for the Texas cattle business on Wednesday, June 5, 2019.

Congressman Vicente González, D-McAllen, and Congressman Filemón Vela, Jr., D-Brownsville, also played important roles in helping Cuellar, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, obtain the combined, almost one-quarter billion dollars in proposed federal money.

Announcement of both funding proposals came a few days after González and his wife, Lorena, were guests of honor for the 1st Annual Employee Appreciation Dinner held on Monday, May 27, 2019 in McAllen and hosted by Mani Skaria, Founder, President, and CEO, US Citrus, LLC, and Christopher W. James, a major investor of US Citrus, LLC.

Alonzo Cantú, a Texas business magnate, also attended the US Citrus, LLC dinner to help honor the business’ skilled and loyal workforce.

Skaria is a successful entrepreneur, renowned citrus scientist, and Professor Emeritus from Texas A&M University-Kingsville. He is the recipient of the prestigious Pott’s Award, recognizing outstanding scientific contribution and service to the citrus industry of Texas.

US Citrus, LLC specializes in the production and marketing of specialty citrus plants and fruit, including its famous Persian limes. The Valley-based company uses a proprietary technology called, Micro-budding for citrus plant production. Plants produce fruit much sooner than conventionally produced plants. The firm practices higher density planting (6-10 times more tree population per acre), which also results in reduced pesticide applications and environment friendly practices – making it a role model and work towards delivering high quality products to the market, according to the company’s website (https://uscitrus.com)

“I would like to thank my fellow South Texas representatives, Congressmen Vicente González and Filemón Vela, for their dedication to help Texas’ citrus industry,” said Cuellar. ““I would like to thank my fellow appropriators, Congressman (Sanford D.) Bishop, Jr. (D-Georgia), and Congressman (Jeffrey Lane “Jeff”) Fortenberry, (R-Nebraska) for helping me secure these funds. Additionally, I recognize Texas Citrus Mutual and Texas A&M for their continued efforts to help fight citrus-greening within our state.”

González is on the Financial Services Committee and also serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Vela serves on the House Committee on Agriculture and the House Committee on Homeland Security.

The $124 million is included in the U.S. House of Representatives’ fiscal year 2020 Agriculture Appropriations bill, which would provide support to citrus farmers and allocate funds towards various efforts to help preserve citrus trees in deep South Texas, and in doing so, help citrus farmers preserve the value of their crops and maintain industry prices for consumers.

“Our citrus growers are a large contributor to South Texas’ economy, and their crop and livelihood is being threatened. It is a top priority for me to control these pests and find a cure to the disease.” said Cuellar. “As a member of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, I have an obligation to ensure the U.S. Department of Agriculture has the funding to provide aid to our citrus growers and protect our food supply. I will continue to provide funding for the Texas Citrus Farmers while we work to find a cute for the citrus greening disease.”

According to Florida Citrus, citrus greening disease (also known as Huanglongbing or HLB) is a sickness spread by an insect called the Asian citrus psyllid. The psyllid feeds on the stems and leaves of the trees, infecting the trees with the bacteria that causes citrus greening. Greening impairs the tree’s ability to take in nourishment, ultimately resulting in fewer and smaller fruit over time. Once a tree is infected, there is no cure.

(https://www.floridacitrus.org/newsroom/citrus-411/citrus-greening/what-is-citrus-greening/Citrus greening)

Dale Murden of Texas Citrus Mutual, a nonprofit trade association representing Texas citrus growers, and Chancellor John Sharp of The Texas A&M University System have personally seen the effects of citrus diseases like citrus greening since it was first positively identified in the Valley in 2008, Cuellar noted.

Citrus Health Response Program

In the House measure, Cuellar secured $61 million for the Citrus Health Response Program, including $3 million for the Huanglongbird Multi-Agency Coordination (HLB-MAC) Group, under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

The goal of the HLB-MAC is to combat citrus greening disease through research efforts and coordination between state and federal regulator agencies. Additionally, Cuellar ensured that $63 million was provided for fruit fly exclusion and detection. This funding will help to control the invasive crop pest, which threatens numerous South Texas agricultural products, including citruses.

Cuellar also included language in the Agriculture appropriations bill to encourage APHIS to allocate sufficient resources to address the issue of citrus greening and directs HLB-MAC to give out resources in the best way possible to maximize the effect it can have on the disease.

The U.S. citrus industry has an economic footprint of $11 billion; however, due to Citrus Greening Disease and fruit fly prevalence, the industry has faced steep damages and economic losses. All the citrus growing counties in Texas are under quarantine, and the State of Florida has seen a reduction in citrus production of over 60% since 2007. In addition, the Asian Citrus Psyllid, the vector of the Greening Disease, continues to spread into new agricultural communities.

Agricultural Research Service

Within the bill, Cuellar incorporated language commending the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) on its citrus greening research efforts and to continue its cooperation with HLB-MAC. The language encourages the agency to continue working to curb the spread of the disease and enhance immunity in citrus trees as well as to work with industry, universities, growers, and other partners to develop effective ways of controlling the disease. ARS is a member of HLB-MAC.

In addition, the he included language encouraging the continuation of good work with industry, universities, growers, and other partners to develop effective control mechanisms in the fight against citrus greening. The hope behind these working groups is to bring together relevant stakeholders, develop innovative solutions and help USDA choose good projects that will bring us closer to short-term and long-term solutions to the citrus greening problem, in addition to an eventual cure.

Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

Cuellar also secured language for Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, encouraging the use of CHRP funds to partner with state departments of agriculture and industry groups to address the disease in addition to encouraging APHIS to use the funds available in the Plant Pest and Disease Management and Disaster Preventions Programs account and in the funds for CHRP to keep the citrus industry viable.

National Institute of Food and Agriculture

Finally, Cuellar included language for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture that prioritizes citrus greening research projects through the Emergency Citrus Disease Research and Extension Program, which was created under the 2014 farm bill, and encourages the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to work with the National Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Advisory Board’s citrus disease subcommittee and to collaborate with HLB-MAC.

Citrus Production Threatened by Fruit Flies

The Fruit Fly Exclusion and Detection Programs protect the health and value of American agricultural resources threatened by the establishment of exotic fruit fly populations. USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS is concerned with the risk of the northward spread of exotic fruit fly species into the United States via Mexico. Mexico is an especially high-risk pathway due to the shared border and the large numbers of people migrating from fruit fly infested areas of Central America and Mexico to the United States.

Fruit flies spend their larval stages feeding and growing in more than 400 host plants. Introduction of these pest species into the United States causes economic losses from destruction and spoiling of host commodities by larvae, costs associated with implementing control measures, and loss of market share due to restrictions on shipment of host commodities. The extensive damage and wide host range of fruit flies become obstacles to agricultural diversification and trade when pest fruit fly species become established.

CATTLE HEALTH IN FY 20 AGRICULTURE APPROPRIATIONS BILL INCLUDES $13.5 MILLION FOR CATTLE FEVER TICK RESEARCH, CONTAINMENT AND ERADICATION

The $110 million for the Texas cattle business, which provides $13.5 million for cattle fever tick research, containment and eradication, is included as part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) cattle health initiatives in the FY20 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill.  This an increase of $8.5 million from FY19 funding for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and $5 million for the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service (ARS), according to Cuellar.

ARS will receive $5 million for cattle fever tick critical research needs.  Additionally, ARS has been directed to coordinate development of its long-term cattle fever tick research program with APHIS efforts under the Cattle Fever Tick Eradication Program.  The increase of $8.5 million to APHIS will fund programs related to eradication of fever ticks for livestock and wildlife hosts, including, but not limited to research, data management, infrastructure, and treatment.

Cattle fever ticks are vectors of pathogens that cause Texas Cattle Fever, or bovine babesiosis, a highly fatal disease in naïve animals. There are no vaccines or drugs available to prevent or control the disease.  Disease prevention is achieved by preventing contact with cattle fever ticks.

Recognizing the Urgency of Cost-share Programs for Quarantine Fencing
 
APHIS has been encouraged to use part of this funding for a cost-share program for the construction and repair of livestock or game quarantine fencing on private lands, to constrain the fever tick areas of expansion. USDA will work in conjunction with State Animal Health Commissions, to develop a strategy to exclude wildlife from areas at highest risk of tick spread and identify areas that qualify for funds within these areas.

The Quarantine zones serve as the buffer between Mexico, where ticks are endemic, and the rest of the fever tick-free United States, called the Free Area. Movement restrictions are a critical component in stopping the spread of the ticks to new areas. Fever tick quarantines require inspection of cattle on not only infested premises but also surrounding premises, providing surveillance. Lastly, fever tick quarantines also require systematic treatment of infested and exposed livestock and wildlife hosts, which results in the removal of ticks not only from the animals, but ultimately the environment.

“The disease the cattle fever tick carries is capable of devastating the cattle industry, a $67 billion business in the United States,” said Cuellar. “It is critical we invest in the well-being of our livestock to maintain economic stability for farmers and ranchers in South Texas and across our country. Since 2008, I have worked to provide funding to study cattle fever ticks and their eradication. The funds for the USDA-APHIS Cattle Health program this year are an important step in helping control the tick population and stop the spread of their disease.

“I would like to thank my fellow Appropriators, Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee Chairman Sanford Bishop and Ranking Member Jeff Fortenberry for helping me secure these funds,”  Cuellar added. “I want to also Chancellor John Sharp and Texas A&M on their critical research initiatives that will hopefully lead to the eradication of cattle fever tick. Additionally, I would like to thank the Texas Farm Bureau, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, and the South Texans’ Property Rights Association for their consistent efforts to help highlight and battle this issue at the local, State, and Federal level for our Texas ranchers and cattle producers. Lastly, I want to thank my fellow South Texas Representatives, Congressmen Vicente González and Filemón Vela, for their dedication to help Texas’ cattle industry.”

“Congressman Cuellar’s persistence has paid off once again by securing funding for this important research,” said Sharp. “Beef cattle is a pillar to the South Texas economy. Investing in research to eradicate cattle tick fever and to fight a devastating disease that can take out your citrus crops is a wise investment in South Texas’ future.”

“Texas Farm Bureau appreciates Congressman Henry Cuellar for his continued work in providing critical funding for cattle fever tick control,” said Texas Farm Bureau President Russell Boening. “His steadfast support for hardworking ranching families being impacted by the fever tick does not go unnoticed. We thank Congressman Cuellar for being a leading champion for Texas agriculture.”

“Preventing and eradicating cattle fever ticks is a top animal health priority for NCBA. We appreciate Congressman Cuellar’s continued efforts to secure the resources USDA officials need to get the job done. This new funding will help cattle producers in Texas who work hard every day to feed the world,” stated Colin Woodall, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

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David A. Díaz contributed to this story. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories which affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).

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