New, Deadly 'AIDS'
Tree Virus Threatens
Pennsylvania Crops
GETTYSBURG, Pa. - A deadly fruit tree virus may force some Pennsylvania peach farmers to destroy their crops worth millions of dollars, farmers and agriculture officials said on Tuesday.
The plum pox virus, which previously has been seen only in Europe, was discovered in Pennsylvania September. The virus, dubbed the "AIDS of fruit trees," has infected more than one-third of the 2,500 acres (1,000 hectares) of peach orchards in Adams County in south central Pennsylvania.
A U.S. Agriculture Department official said the agency was discussing issuing an "extraordinary emergency order" that would give farmers indemnity payments to burn infected crops. The official did not say when that order might take effect or how much of the areas crops would be affected.
John Halbrendt, a plant pathologist at Pennsylvania State University, said destroying infected trees is the only way to stem the epidemic.
"There is no cure for an infected tree," Halbrendt said.
The virus, which can infect peach, plum, apricot, nectarine and almond trees, poses no risk to human health, said William Kleiner, Adams County extension service director.
"It doesn't kill you. It just cuts production down. It's a slow death to the tree," he said, adding that farmers fear a drop in fruit sales due to wary consumers.
"It's all so new to us." said James Lerew, whose farm located 16 miles north of Gettysburg has been infected. "We don't have an idea why it hit here ... we just don't know where it's going to stop."
When asked how much of his crop he would have to destroy to eradicate the virus, he said, "possibly all of it."
According to the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, losses from destroying trees could range from $500,000 to $1 million per farm.
Moreover, if the virus continued to spread, the USDA could impose a five-year ban on growing peaches, area farmers said, dealing a devastating economic blow to a region that grows 43 percent of Pennsylvania's peach crop and is a prime competitor in international markets.
"The area where they found the virus grows some of the prettiest peaches; these are some of the healthiest orchards," said John Rice, owner of a local fruit farm and packing plant. "It just doesn't compute."
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has already embargoed imports of certain types of fruit trees and seeds from Pennsylvania.
Federal and state plant pathologists have been analysing samples from infected trees to determine the virus source, which is suspected to be Europe or Chile.
"No one is sure how it got here," said USDA official Edna Suggs.
State agriculture officials also have asked experts from England and France to visit the infected orchards in early December.