USA: Pest targets avocado trees

Born and raised in Mexico, Sergio Cruz certainly has the pedigree for making authentic guacamole.


In recent years, the Winter Haven man has coalesced recipes into a formula that routinely wins rave reviews at potlucks and family gatherings.


Goaded by friends into going commercial with his spicy, tangy green dip, Cruz hit the road five years ago, selling his product in pint-size tubs from roadside fruit stands, farmers markets and special events.


The Guacamole Guy became the doppelganger by which Cruz, 41, created buzz. From a commercial kitchen in Winter Haven, he blended the buttery fruit with lime juice, cilantro, tomato, onions and jalapeno peppers. Batch after batch flew off shelves of specialty stores all over Central Florida.


A stickler for using only Florida fruit, Cruz, a former landscaper who publishes a community magazine serving much of Polk County, took advantage of free, tree-ripened fruit from avocado trees dotting his Winter Haven neighborhood.


But that quickly turned into a production nightmare, thanks to a pesky bug called the ambrosia beetle, which has methodically infected trees throughout the state with a fungus called laurel wilt.


Lethal to avocado and other tree species in the laurel family, the fungus — Raffaelea lauricola — poses a serious threat to Florida’s commercial avocado industry, worth $55 million to the state economy, according to University of Florida agricultural economist Edward “Gilly” Evans.


First detected in northeast Florida’s Duval County in 2005, the disease moved rapidly through the state, striking Florida’s commercial production area in south Miami-Dade County in March 2012.


Since then, more than 3,000 trees found to be infested have been destroyed, representing only a small fraction of the state’s 650,000 commercial tree stock, Evans said in an email. Still, he said, “The potential impacts are far reaching.”


The only way to halt the disease is to destroy a tree once the fungus is detected, a process “that is extremely costly” in terms of sampling, testing and disposal, Evans said.


“One avocado tree is worth about $400 and the cost to properly dispose of a diseased tree is about $200,” he said.


Supply not affected


Lovers of the pear-shaped fruit prized for its light, nut-like flavor and healthful benefits (they are high in fiber and full of omega-3 fatty acids), need not worry anytime soon about dwindling supplies. Laurel wilt so far has mainly affected homeowners, while the state’s commercial stock continues to thrive.


“At the moment there isn’t any noticeable impact on the supply of avocados from South Florida,” Evans said.


The same can be said for avocados from other sources. Mexico produces more avocados than any other country, followed by Brazil and the U.S. California’s crop dwarfs Florida’s, though both states are battling the tiny, borer beetles that are roughly the size of Lincoln’s nose on a penny.


One promising weapon in the arsenal of researchers at the University of Florida at Homestead and the University of California-Riverside is a beneficial fungi capable of killing the ambrosia beetle. The method of delivery is a foam that was originally developed for termite eradication.


According to the California Avocado Commission, a federal agricultural research team is conducting orchard-scale trials in California to see if the foam can be used to control the bugs.


Meanwhile, consumers can count on a steady supply of avocados, according to Brian West, a spokesman for Publix Super Markets Inc.


“Our supplier has always provided us with excellent volume of high-quality avocados (from around the world) and we expect that to continue,” he said in an email. “To date, we have not been impacted by the effects of the beetle. We have not had any significant shortages, or experienced any major increase in price.”


Dealing locally


This, of course, is all good news to Cruz, who prefers Florida-grown avocados, of which there are several dozen varieties and hybrids stemming from three primary races — West Indian, Guatemalan and Mexican.


He said his recipe depends on a blend of several kinds, and that he and his customers can tell the difference when he uses fruit from outside of the state.


“That’s the beauty and the energy of my product,” he said. “I use four or five varieties.”


Cruz suspects the die-off of avocado trees in his neighborhood is the work of the ambrosia beetle.


Normally, he would be in production as early as May, as different varieties mature at different times of the year, roughly between late May and early January.


California’s popular Hass variety has been available now for over a month.


But that is of no consequence to Cruz, who depends on fruit from South Florida, which does not hit the market until early September, he said.


So he waits to begin producing the guacamole he sells for $8 a pint.


“When you’re a perfectionist you have to be very, very careful,” he said. “I cannot work with California (avocados). I want to be somebody who deals locally.”


Source: Herald Tribune

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