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Tulare County targets abandoned citrus farms

This abandoned citrus grove in Strathmore is surviving on rainfall and runoff.

Kuyler Crocker is a fifth generation citrus farmer in Strathmore.

"We take pride in what we're doing. We're able to farm here and feed the world," he says.

His fields are almost ready to be harvested.

“Most likely these are going to China. Probably picked in three weeks,” he says.

But other orchards down the road are anything but ready.

Some are barely surviving on rainfall and runoff.

Those groves, are abandoned.

"There were a lot of individuals who purchased property with the idea and dream of living in the countryside but didn't realize how much it takes to farm," Crocker says.

Abandoned orchards litter the county.

There’s no exact number, but the danger they pose is clear.

"If a neighboring grove is abandoned and not being treated, that's a safe harbor for the pest that renders our treatments ineffective," says Alyssa Houtby, Director of Governmental Affairs for California Citrus Mutual.

She’s referring to treatments for the pest known as the Asian Citrus Psyllid.

It can spread the bacterial disease known as Huanglongbing, or HLB.

"It could be devastating. There is no cure for HLB. Once a tree is infected it stops producing citrus," Houtby says.

Florida has been dealing with HLB for more than a decade.

It’s wiped out 60% of that state’s citrus acreage, Crocker says.

HLB hasn’t been found in the Central Valley.

Experts say it’s only a matter of time.

Tulare County has 132,000 acres of citrus farmland.

It has 75 packing houses.

The citrus industry fuels 25,000 jobs.

“It's very scary for me,” Crocker says.

Crocker isn’t just a farmer.

He’s also a Tulare County Supervisor.

Last week, supervisors voted to back a proposal by the county’s Ag Commissioner to go in and clear abandoned citrus groves.

"If property owners are not willing to take care of their own property, we will find a contractor to push out their abandoned orchards and eliminate the threat of breeding ground for the Asian Citrus Psyllid," Crocker says.

Tulare County will spend $250,000 to get this done.

Crocker considers it an investment.

The county will eventually recuperate the money after liens are placed on properties.

"Think about the amount of attention the citrus industry gets when a freeze occurs. Think about that year, after year, after year, after year,” he says.

“The idea is that we can delay it long enough before we can find a cure or some treatment for this."

Crocker says Tulare County could start mailing out letters to growers as early as January.

It could start clearing the land by March.

You can read more about the plan of action here.

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