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This Pest Has Shut Down South Florida's $700 Million Fruit Industry

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Adrian G. Hunsberger, an urban horticulture agent of the University of Florida, shows a carambola, also known as starfruit. It's one of the many fruits that have been quarantined in South Florida amid concerns over an outbreak of the Oriental fruit fly.

In Florida, federal and state officials have quarantined 85 square miles of farmland to combat a destructive pest: The Oriental Fruit Fly attacks hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables.

The invasive insect was first detected near Miami a few weeks ago. Since then, authorities have banned the transport of most fruits and vegetables from one of the nation's most productive agricultural areas. It's called the Redland, a part of Miami-Dade County named for its pockets of red clay. With its tropical climate and year-round growing season, growers there produce everything from tomatoes to papayas.

But at J and C Tropicals, a grower and distributor in the heart of the Redland, things are disturbingly quiet. Operations manager Salvador Fernandez walks into one of his six cavernous coolers. With the quarantine, it's empty.

"It's usually full," he says, "especially at this time of year, because we do truckloads of mamey and avocado and passion fruit and dragon fruit."

Tropical fruit sales have been growing in recent years, with new varieties available to consumers. Dragon fruit is originally from Asia. Mamey — sometimes called mamey sapote — is from Central America.

Two weeks ago, agriculture officials froze production in much of the Redland farming area after they detected the Oriental fruit fly. The quarantine was imposed just as growers were beginning to harvest tropical fruit crops. Fernandez can't say how much it's all likely to cost. "We estimated that we have mamey alone about 500,000 pounds left on the trees," he says. "[As for] dragon fruit, that leaves 20 million pounds on the trees potentially."

Other tropical fruit is also affected, including sapodilla, guavas and passion fruit. Also in the balance are traditional market crops like tomatoes, peppers, beans and squash, which should be planted soon.

Florida's agriculture commissioner, Adam Putnam, has declared a state of emergency and ordered fruit stripped and destroyed in areas where the flies have been found. What makes the Oriental fruit fly so devastating, Putnam says, is that it affects more than 400 crops. The fruit fly, Putnam says, "feeds on the fruit. It pierces it, lays its eggs, causes obviously a very unpleasant condition in that fruit when those eggs are laid in there."

Inspectors have found about 160 Oriental fruit flies so far. But counts have been dropping, which may be a sign the eradication measures are working.

Paul Hornby with the U.S. Department of Agriculture says scientists and farmers have a lot of experience with fruit flies, both the Oriental variety and their Mediterranean cousins. Florida alone has seen 75 fruit fly incursions over the past 90 years.

"I'm extremely confident we'll get our arms around this, and hopefully, within a matter of a few months, we'll be out of the situation," Hornby says.

At J&C Tropicals, Salvador Fernandez is working to save some of his tropical fruit by irradiating it before sending it to market. That's approved by federal and state authorities, but it's costly.

With a drought and another pest that's hit the avocado crop, it's been a tough year for growers. If authorities don't eradicate the fruit fly soon, Fernandez says there will be serious consequences for an industry in Miami-Dade County valued at $700 million.

"There's a lot of growers that will go bankrupt," he says. "There's a lot of people they just don't have the cash flow to sustain these kind of losses." Fernandez says he's already received calls from four growers who told him they want to sell their farms.

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