CRB leadership change elevates HLB fight

CRB leadership change elevates HLB fight

Ken Keck is the new President of the California Citrus Research Board. Ted Batkin retires as president after 20 years of service. Keck brings many tools to the table to fight the deadly citrus disease Huanglongbing.

Change can be stressful, offer benefits, and open doors to opportunity. Such is the case at the California Citrus Research Board (CRB).

On June 3, Ken Keck assumed the helm as president of the CRB. He succeeds retiring President Ted Batkin whose 20-year CRB career ends Sept. 30.

The CRB is a citrus research organization which administers the Citrus Research Program, a grower funded- and directed-program established under the California Marketing Act in 1968. The program enables California citrus producers to sponsor and support efforts to control pest and disease threats through research.

During separate sit down meetings with Batkin and Keck at the CRB headquarters in Visalia, the men discussed past, current, and future citrus threats.

Batkin, other CRB staff, plus researchers funded through the CRB program, have made tremendous research strides against many citrus scourges, including the industry’s current most perilous threat – the Asian citrus psyllid (ACP) and the disease Huanglongbing (HLB).

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The tiny psyllid insect carries the Candidatus Liberibacter spp. bacterium in its body to a citrus tree where the pest feeds on foliage resulting in HLB infection.

HLB, also called citrus greening, has killed every HLB-infected tree in the world.

HLB was first found in the U.S. in Florida in 2005. Keck was on staff at the Florida Citrus Commission at the time. Keck brings to the CRB a wealth of knowledge and hands-on experience in the battles which Florida growers have won and lost against the ACP-HLB complex.

Batkin and Keck were asked if the California citrus industry can defeat HLB-ACP. Both emphatically said, “Yes!”

Ted Batkin’s journey

Ted Batkin joined the CRB in 1993 when the company was headquartered in Valencia in Los Angeles County. The destructive 1994 Northridge earthquake basically destroyed the CRB digs. The CRB moved to Visalia.

Over his career, Batkin has worked in agricultural research. Prior to the CRB, Batkin was a vice-president with Montford Management Services in Dinuba. He managed five commodity boards covering fresh tomatoes, potatoes, celery, cantaloupe, and other melons.

Prior to joining the CRB, Batkin developed a sales and marketing program for specialty crops.

As Batkin reflected on his two-decade CRB tenure, he outlined three major “lightning rod” pest and disease threats the CRB had faced.

The first lightning rod issue when Batkin joined the CRB was the exotic Mediterranean fruit fly, or medfly. The adult medfly lays eggs under the fruit skin. Larvae grow inside the citrus making the fruit unmarketable.

In the early 1980s, medflies destroyed millions of dollars worth of crops across California, including citrus, with billions more at stake. During his first term as the state’s chief executive, Gov. Jerry Brown authorized controversial airborne sprays, plus the release of sterile male medflies which eventually eradicated the pest.

During the outbreak, foreign buyers from China, Japan, Korea, and other countries threatened to halt imports of California citrus if a medfly solution was not found.

“The potential loss of export markets was a huge economic challenge for California agriculture,” Batkin said.

The CRB and other groups also fought off other exotic-type fruit flies, including the Mexican, oriental, melon, and peach fruit flies. For citrus, the battle for fruit fly control was critical since about 40 percent of California citrus was exported and still is today.

“The CRB worked hard on fruit fly research, and helped lead technical and scientific studies to establish and improve new sterile insect techniques (SIT),” Batkin explained.

“Today we have a continuous SIT program in Southern California which has helped keep the entire state out of harm’s way from quarantine threats. We convinced our trading partners that the fruit flies were under control. We successfully maintained our export markets.”

The second ‘lightning rod’ of Batkin’s career was citrus tristeza virus (CTV) which first entered California in the 1960s. CTV causes tree decline, stem pitting, and seedling yellows. Severe strains can kill citrus trees, primarily those on sour orange rootstock.

“We had a tristeza eradication program which was scientifically controversial,” Batkin told Western Farm Press.

The CRB helped identify and clarify the science to battle tristeza, and guided the industry to make key decisions on whether eradication was necessary or a feasible option.

Instrumental in the CTV fight were resistant rootstocks which provided growers a critical edge to for virus control.

“The science took the pressure off growers’ fear of losing a high-producing grove to eradication and tree removal due to tristeza,” Batkin said.

Huanglongbing fight

Batkin’s third lightning rod, which Keck now inherits, is the fight against the Asian citrus psyllid and Huanglongbing.

Research projects underway across the globe aim to halt the disease or render the insect incapable of spreading the bacterium.

Once a tree is infected with HLB, several years can pass before the first visual symptoms of the disease occur. Symptoms include leaf moddling, yellowed shoots, and misshapen, bitter-tasting unmarketable fruit.

“The basic fact is once the Liberibacter gets in the tree it will ultimately die. It can be a slow death or fast death,” Batkin said.

The ACP-HLB issue first appeared on the CRB’s radar screen in 1998 as the pest-disease complex grew in citrus groves worldwide. By 2004, Brazil, the largest citrus region in the world, fought an uphill battle against the complex.  

Batkin joined a California citrus delegation which visited Brazilian groves to get a firsthand look. Afterwards, the CRB established an HLB taskforce to gather important data in case the disease made its way to the U.S.

Just one year later (2005), the disease was confirmed in Florida. The psyllid was first found in Florida in 1998.

Lessons learned from the Florida and Brazil experience, and others, have helped the western U.S. citrus industry prepare for the pest and disease.

Many California citrus leaders concur that HLB could wipeout the $2 billion-plus California citrus industry; a $2 billion-plus business – unless research tools and solutions are found.

Citrus is an estimated $65 million industry in neighboring Arizona.

In Spring 2008, the first psyllid was found in California in an insect trap near San Diego. Today, thousands of psyllids are found in the Golden State; mostly in residential areas in the Los Angeles Basin. Some psyllids have been captured in traps in commercial citrus.

In March of last year, the bomb fell on California citrus. The first case of HLB was found in a L.A.-area residential citrus tree. No other confirmations have been made.

About a dozen psyllids have been found in Arizona, but not HLB.

Keck poised for HLB battle

The future of the CRB’s ACP-HLB fight is now on Keck’s watch.

Keck said, “My goal is in the transition from the esteemed experience and leader that Ted represented is to keep this organization and its bones strong now and into the future.”

Keck’s work history has prepared him for the CRB challenges ahead.

From 1999-2002, Keck worked in legislative and regulatory affairs with Florida Citrus Mutual.  He spent the next four years as director of government affairs and general counsel for the Florida Department of Citrus, and as the department’s executive director and general counsel since 2006.

Keck understands Florida’s ACP-HLB experience - the good, the bad, and the ugly. He brings these talents to the California table to help the industry.

Speaking candidly, Keck said, “We (Florida citrus) were dead before the first shot was fired. We had the disease and we didn’t know it. The wealth of data from Florida and other citrus regions on HLB is information the California citrus industry can tap.”

Keck brings to California citrus another edge against ACP-HLB. He is a Florida citrus grower who grew up on his family’s citrus operation in Lake Placid.

“I know what it’s like to rely on the harvest each year to pay the bills,” Keck said.

Ken, along with his brother and sister, grow oranges for processing into juice. Their parents grew and packed grapefruit and specialty fruit.

On today’s Florida battle against ACP-HLB, Keck says growers are at a critical juncture. The goal this past growing season was to keep trees healthy enough to maintain fruit production in a HLB environment. Unfortunately, much of the fruit fell to the ground.

“The jury is out on how well we’ll weather the coming fruit-growing season,” the citrus grower said.

Florida is the nation’s largest citrus producer, followed by California. About 90 percent of the Florida crop is processed. About 75 percent of the California crop is grown for the fresh market.

Looking forward, Keck’s CRB vision is to adapt Florida’s learned experiences to help California citrus survive the ACP-HLB threat. He acknowledges that differences exist between the two states’ citrus industries so tweaking will be needed.

His advice for California and Arizona citrus growers is prevent – prevent - prevent.

“Prevent is what we didn’t do in Florida,” Keck said. “We didn’t know any better.”

Keck will also explore the adaptation of Florida’s citrus health management areas – CHMAs for short – in California. With CHMAs, growers communicate on a regular basis with citrus neighbors on the use of different pesticide modes of action used for psyllid control. This can improve pesticide efficacy and delay possible product resistance.

“Grower cooperation is the key,” Keck said.

At the CRB helm, Keck will seek peer review of proposed pest and disease research projects. In Florida, citrus ideas were evaluated through the National Academies to gain outside perspectives on research proposals before projects were ever funded.

Batkin’s "retirement"

Keck and Batkin look forward to the day when HLB is a reflection in the rear-view mirror to allow the association to focus on other important issues.

While Batkin is retiring by the book, he plans to continue the pursuit of citrus industry solutions.

“I have had the most fabulous career that anyone could ever hope for in life and I will continue to be involved in citrus research,” Batkin said.

He may work with USDA in Texas where HLB was detected several years ago. He says Texas is a “perfect environment” to test and utilize HLB-prevention tools.

While Ted and his wife Diyls’ free time will include cruising the country via motor home, Ted’s windshield time will include peering out for citrus answers.

“As long as I have good health, I’ll be out ringing the bell on citrus research. There is still work to do,” Batkin concluded.

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