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Olive Growers Battle Tiny Pest

August 23, 2000

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) _ California’s olive growers are battling a tiny Mediterranean pest that farmers say could devastate their industry in just a few years if it continues to spread at its current rapid pace.

Found just two years ago on ornamental trees in back yards and highway medians throughout Southern California, the pinhead-sized olive fruit fly has since migrated into the San Joaquin Valley, the heart of the state’s $100 million commercial olive industry.

``It is a dire situation for us _ this little beast only likes olives,″ said Janet Nelson, manager of the California Olive Committee.

Although no serious damage to commercial crops has been reported, industry leaders say the pest has the potential to wipe out entire orchards if left alone to feed and multiply.

Entomologists say the olive fruit fly, Bactrocera oleae, is the world’s most dangerous olive pest. Its larvae tunnels into the fruit, where it grows to adulthood feeding on the infested olive flesh. An invaded orchard’s fruit will drop prematurely, reducing yields. Oil volume is also reduced and acidity levels rise during an infestation.

Olive growers in California are bitter that their industry, which represents just a fraction of the state’s roughly $30 billion-a-year agricultural sector, isn’t getting nearly the kind of federal and state assistance that grape growers have received for their efforts to combat the glassy-winged sharpshooter.

``The state said they can’t do anything because so many of the finds are in urban areas, and although they are spraying for the glassy-winged sharpshooter, they won’t spray for the olive fruit fly,″ Nelson said.

The sharpshooter, carrier of Pierce’s disease, has been blamed for $400 million in damage to southern California vineyards and is the target of a $30 million-plus eradication program begun earlier this year that has included monitoring and ground spraying of pesticide.

State agriculture officials believe the olive fruit fly has been steadily migrating north from Mexico for the last three or four years, hidden in smuggled shipments of olives or simply flying across the border.

``I was hoping that our state secretary of agriculture would step in and do something to eliminate the fly, but I’ve been a little disappointed in that,″ said Pat Akin, who farms 55 acres near Ivanhoe in Tulare County. ``We’re a small industry, and this is what happens to small industries, I guess.″

But state officials say the industry’s perceived lack of political clout has nothing to do with the decision not to initiate a statewide eradication program.

Because the infestation is already widespread, rather than spending money on trying to eliminate the pest, farmers should concentrate on developing management strategies, said Pat Minyard, chief of the Pest Detection and Emergency Projects branch of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

``It’s a very effective colonizer. The olive fruit fly is one of those pests the olive industry will have to adjust to,″ Minyard said.

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