The whitefly in Texas may be sending up a surrender flag to tomato processors in the state thanks to a Texas AgriLife Research scientist developing a new variety that resists the virus spread by this pesky insect.
A 10-year battle against the insect all but wiped out the tomato industry in Texas, but the new tomato already is encouraging small processors to stay in business, according to Dr. Kevin Crosby, AgriLife Research vegetable breeder.
"We first saw this new virus around 2002 or so," Crosby said. "There were strains of this virus complex always in the Rio Grande Valley, but they weren't nearly as easily spread by the whitefly as this new strain that originated in the Middle East and then went from Florida to Mexico and then came to Texas.
"It spreads like wildfire. I've seen a 50-acre field just plowed under because they couldn't get a single tomato out of them. There are so many whiteflies down there in that subtropical region, you really can never completely eliminate whiteflies. You can't do it." Dr. Kevin Crosby
The researcher said tomato plants as young as three weeks old can be infected by the whiteflies, causing leaves to curl and turn yellow, ultimately killing the entire plant.
Tomato processing in the Rio Grande Valley pulled the plug rather than fight the prolific fly, industry officials said.
"Whiteflies just devastated the tomato industry here," said Buddy Ault, owner of Rio Valley Canning Co. in Donna. "At one time the Rio Grande Valley was producing about 40,000 acres of tomatoes until the whitefly came along. Acreage plunged. Then, about five years ago we noticed that plants were dying just when the fruit was about to mature. The leaves turned yellow and cut off nutrients to the fruit, causing tomatoes to stay green on the inside."
Growers first blamed the whitefly, then realized a virus carried by whitefly was to blame, Ault said.
"So, we asked Texas AgriLife Researc
|Contact: Kathleen Phillips|
Texas A&M AgriLife Communications