US (CA): Devastating virus challenges lettuce growers

While most Californians are wholeheartedly embracing the wet start to winter, one group is welcoming the rain more warily (and wearily) – lettuce growers in the Salinas Valley. “It’s a blessing, yes, we need the water,” said Tony Alameda, managing partner of Topflavor Farms, which grows a variety of produce in Monterey and San Benito counties. “But, oh gosh: with that water, here come the weeds, here comes the habitat, here comes all the other problems that go along with it.”

Weeds are overwintering havens for a tiny insect called the Western flower thrips, which in turn carries the impatiens necrotic spot virus (INSV) – a plant virus that caused $100 million in lost gross revenue for Salinas Valley growers in 2020. The agricultural community called it “the biggest problem we’ve seen in a long, long time,” said Mary Zischke, facilitator of a task force convened by the Grower-Shipper Association to address INSV and a related affliction, Pythium wilt.

Since INSV was first observed in the state in 2006, the virus – which poses no threat to people – triggered significant crop losses in 2019, leading up to a catastrophic 2020. As Alameda’s lettuces began to show the telltale “bronzing” of the leaves, efforts to bag up or remove the infected plants had no effect on the virus’ implacable spread. “Nothing seemed to work,” he recalled, “and you just watch those fields collapse, week after week, until you’re just like, ‘Ugh, there’s nothing here to even harvest.’”

After “100% crop failure” that year in his prime fields at the heart of the Salinas Valley, Alameda tried to dodge the virus in 2021 – shifting lettuce plantings to San Benito County and instead of using his most valuable land for unaffected crops such as cilantro, leeks, and radishes. By decamping to San Benito, Alameda was able to harvest 70% of his usual lettuce yield. Generally, growers enjoyed a reprieve from virus pressures in 2021. Even in this “good” year, however, about one-third of all lettuce plantings in the Salinas Valley had at least a low level of infection, according to Zischke. “Since we were attributing a lot of our so-called good fortune – on having less damage this year – to the cooler weather, we know we can’t count on that to get us out of this problem,” Zischke said. “All the models point to the fact that we’re in a warming climate, so we were fortunate this year.”

Read the complete article at www.californiaagtoday.com.


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