Fungus threatens Florida avocado production

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A vascular disease caused by a fungus is posing a serious threat to Florida’s commercial avocado production, which could result in almost $55 million damage to the state economy.

First found in 2005 in northeast Florida’s Duval County, laurel wilt disease is caused by the fungus Raffaelea lauricola, spread by the ambrosia beetle.

Laurel wilt has been moving rapidly through the state, striking commercial avocado groves in southern Miami-Dade County starting in March 2012. Avacados take up about 7,500 acres of production in Florida.

Currently, most of the trees affected by laurel wilt are on residential property, but more than 3,000 infested commercial trees have also been destroyed, a small part of the state’s 650,000-tree avocado stock.

The Lakeland Ledger reports that after detecting the fungus, the only way to prevent the spread of the disease is by destroying the tree, a process of sampling, testing and disposal that is “extremely costly.” To dispose of an avocado tree costs $200; the total worth of a healthy tree is about $400.

Researchers at the University of Florida at Homestead, as well as at the University of California-Riverside, are looking at a beneficial fungus that can kill the ambrosia beetle, using a foam originally developed for termite extermination.

A federal agricultural research team is working with the California Avocado Commission to assess orchard-scale trials to see if the foam is successful in controlling the bugs. California is the largest producer of avocados in the U.S.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.