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Infestation Is No Disaster, U.S. Says : Whitefly: Imperial and Riverside County areas fail to qualify for federal assistance. Cooler weather has slowed the insect’s onslaught on crops.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

U.S. authorities have denied Gov. Pete Wilson’s request that whitefly-ravaged farm areas in Imperial and Riverside counties be declared federal disaster areas, leaving few prospects of financial relief for growers and laborers.

At the same time, cooler temperatures that have slowed the relentless onslaught of the tiny poinsettia whitefly have allowed crops to make a mild recovery. But the fear remains widespread that prolific breeding may resume as spring approaches.

In a letter to Wilson dated Dec. 16, Secretary of Agriculture Edward Madigan said the damage inflicted by the whitefly, while extensive, was not considered a “natural disaster” under existing definitions. Federal law requires that an insect infestation be the result of a “severe weather pattern” in order to qualify, Madigan said, adding that weather was not a factor with the whitefly.

Officials from Sacramento to Calexico expressed chagrin about the decision, contending that the state was wrongly disqualified because of what amounts to a technicality.

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A federal disaster declaration--similar to one issued a year ago in the wake of a freeze that devastated the state citrus crop--could have opened up a range of funding sources in Washington, including low-interest loans for hurting farmers and emergency unemployment benefits, food supplies and rent and mortgage assistance for the more than 2,000 agricultural laborers thrown out of work.

The pest--known technically as the poinsettia strain of the sweet potato whitefly--has already caused more than $120 million in crop damage in Imperial County and another $7.5 million in losses in neighboring areas of Riverside County. The region, along with adjoining sections of Arizona and northern Mexico that have also been hard hit, normally provide the bulk of the U.S. winter vegetable supply.

However, recent cool weather has slowed the development of the whitefly, and the current harvests of lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli--three major crops--appear much improved, though smaller in size than normal, experts say.

Market prices for produce, while still high, have improved since November, analysts say, partly because of stepped-up production in the Imperial Valley and elsewhere in the region and partly because of increased imports via Mexico.

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“There’s a bit of a recovery on the plants,” said Richard C. Weddle, entomologist with Imperial County.

But Weddle cautioned that the blight remains severe. He estimated there were only about 40 agricultural crews now employed in the Imperial Valley, compared to a norm at this time of year of 100.

“It’s going to be a grim Christmas,” Weddle said. “The farmers got to get going down here or we’re dead.”

Moreover, many suspect that the destructive insect’s numbers will again take off as warmer weather approaches.

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“Our fear, of course, is that the pest will resurge in the springtime,” said John Snyder, deputy agricultural commissioner in Riverside County.

Federal and state researchers are engaged in a hectic search for a method of controlling the whitefly--through biological, chemical or other means. Scientists are seeking potential natural predators or parasites that might destroy the whitefly, pesticides that might kill it, or crop rotation methods that may thwart its development.

In his letter to Wilson, Madigan stressed his resolve to find a method to control the pest. “The Department is committed to making research and monitoring of the sweet potato whitefly problem a high priority,” Madigan said.

The search will take time, though, and it was hoped in California that the federal disaster funds would help tide over farmers, laborers and others feeling the hard times. Even in good times, Imperial County is among the state’s poorest areas, a place where unemployment rates routinely exceed 20%.

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“Obviously, the state efforts up to now will not be enough,” said DeWing of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. “The federal assistance is badly needed.”


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