State Agriculture Department Closes the Books on Plum Pox Virus

The plum pox infection, seen here in an apricot, leaves rings on the leaves and discoloration in the fruit and seed. Photo by John Hammond for the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

After a decade long effort of work and testing, the Plum Pox Virus is eradicated in Pennsylvania.

The announcement was made on Feb. 4 by Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary, George Greig.

“The department has been committed to eradicating the disease and minimizing its impact on growers’ livelihoods and the state’s economy,” Greig said.

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He said that the latest survey officially closes the books on the 14 years of Plum Pox Virus eradication efforts.

“This was only possible through the cooperative efforts of fruit growers, researchers, educators and government,” Greig stated.

The Plum Pox Virus severely affected the production of fruit bearing and ornamental varieties of almond, apricot, cherry, nectarine, peach and plum stone fruit trees.

According to the Department of Agriculture’s Dr. Ruth Welliver, the first case was reported by a grower in Adams County in 1999. She added, however, that the virus was spread to the grower’s trees and that those trees were not the first with the disease.

“It is spread around by aphids or from people transporting plants from one place to another,” Dr. Welliver said.

Aphids suck the sap from the infected tree and carry the disease to other trees. According to the USDA the disease stays in the Aphid’s mouth for an hour and can be spread over 120 meters before the disease is no longer infectious.

The fruit and leaves of trees generally show the signs of a tree with the Plum Pox Virus. The grower who first noticed it reported that he saw different yellow rings around the fruit he was growing. Fruit is often misshapen and may have blemishes on it. The virus also affects the yield that the tree produces. Growers will see a decline in the yield from infected trees.

Had the virus gone unnoticed it could have been an economic disaster for the farmers growing and selling various types of stone fruit. Not only would they not be able to grow as much fruit as they usually would have, but the fruit they did grow would not have sold to the markets because of how it looked.

“It was diagnosed in the fall of 1999 and by the winter we were already meeting with growers and federal officials to come up a plan to eradicate the virus,” Dr. Welliver said.

The eradication process was not much easier for the farmers. In order to eliminate the virus from Pennsylvania, officials had to go to the counties where the virus was found and destroy the trees that had the virus and quarantine the areas so that farmers could not grow trees for an extended period of time. According to Farm Progress, a farming news publication, there were 1,675 acres destroyed in the eradication process.

“We removed one-fifth of the commercial peaches for that year,” Dr. Welliver said.

Federal agriculture officials and Penn State University created a 300 mile quarantine to begin eradicating the virus. The latest survey marked the second of three consecutive years of testing for the recovery phase.

According to Stewart Constable, the production manager at Highland Orchards in West Chester, the agriculture department was quick to contain the virus before it spread any further.

“They tested us for a couple of years and we always came up with negative results,” Constable said.

Constable said that it was contained 100 miles away and that once he knew it was contained he wasn’t fearful of the virus spreading Highland Orchards’ trees in West Chester.

Pennsylvania was considered virus free in October of 2009 after three years of negative results, however for a disease to be considered eradicated, there needs to be negative results for two consecutive three year periods.

“It says a lot about the growers who were able to look past what was immediately going to happen and look to the future for what was going to help them,” Dr. Welliver said.

According to Constable, the farmers were compensated for the trees that were destroyed but it was still a long period that they could not grow on their land for.

Ed Weaver, the owner and president of Weaver Orchards in Morgantown, said that at first he was nervous when his trees were being tested, but once the trees in his orchard tested negatively for the virus he was no longer fearful.

“We have been fortunate at our orchard and in all of Berks County to never (have) had any documented cases of plum pox virus,” Weaver wrote in an email to The Tri County Record.

He stated that it was largely due to the quick action of the USDA and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture that prevented the virus from spreading after it was first diagnosed in Adams County.

“While I am opposed to increased government involvement in our businesses, I recognize the need for support in these areas so that we can continue to provide a safe, reliable food source for the residents of our country,” Weaver wrote.

Today there remain few cases of the Plum Pox virus in the U.S., with New York still working on finding the source of a potential Plum Pox Outbreak.

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