Florida’s farmlands are under attack by a highly destructive pest, the Oriental Fruit Fly, and authorities have quarantined some 85 square miles of land and the food grown there in an effort to contain the insect.

The invasive species was first detected a few weeks ago near Miami. Authorities have since banned the transport of most fruits and vegetables from the Redland, — part of Miami-Dade County, named after the pockets of clay that dot the land — one of America’s most productive agricultural stretches of land. Boasting a fertile soil and a year-round growing season due to its tropical climate, farms here produce everything from tomatoes to papaya that are sold all over the country.

Buuzzzzzzzzzz, not anymore, buuuzzzzz.
Image via wikipedia

In recent years, tropical fruit sales have seen a steady rise, with new varieties such as dragon fruit (originally from Asia) or mamey (a Central American crop) becoming available to a much wider range of consumers. Florida has been cashing in on locally growing these exotic treats, the agricultural industry here being valued at a hefty US$ 700 million — but as operations manager at J and C Tropicals Salvador Fernandez walks into one of the six coolers his company operates, that industry seems very close to a dangerous fall.

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“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.”

The storage coolers are empty, while fruit ripens and rots in the company’s orchards. 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.”

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. All kinds of tropical fruit were affected, including sapodilla, guava and passion fruit. Traditional market crops like tomatoes, bell peppers, beans and squash are also in for a rough start, as the quarantine was enforced when the crops should have been planted.

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. But even a population as small as this gives the authorities reasons for concern: what makes the Oriental fruit fly so devastating, Putnam says, is that it affects more than 400 crops.

“[The fruit fly] 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.”

Past experience with this fly thought the farmers how destructive they can become, but it also left them well equipped to deal with them — Florida has seen 75 fruit fly incursions over the past 90 years, and has eradicated them every time. Paul Hornby with the U.S. Department of Agriculture says scientists and farmers have a great deal of experience with fruit flies, both the Oriental variety and their Mediterranean cousins, and that it’s only a matter of time before the crops recover.

“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, and time might be something they might not have. If authorities don’t eradicate the fruit fly soon, Fernandez says there will be serious consequences for the industry.

“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.