A Tale of Two Poxes

12/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Darrel J. Aubertine New York Agriculture Commissioner

I was about 8 years old when I had the chickenpox. I remember being extremely uncomfortable. I itched all over and was out of school for at least a week. My mother also made sure that my sisters were given maximum exposure to my chickenpox so that they too could get the virus over with.

We’ve come a long way since then. Today, kids who have never had chickenpox can get the varicella vaccine or a combination vaccine called the measles-mumps-rubella-varicella vaccine to protect them from the chickenpox.

If only plants could get such vaccinations. Right now, in the world of plant disease management, there are no agricultural protectants for viruses. Plants don’t miss school the way I did. Instead, we remove infested plants and adjacent host plants. We also put quarantines in place so the disease is unable to continue spreading. And, when available, we plant varieties that are resistant to the disease.

These techniques work, but they can be tough on affected farmers.

There is hope, however, that one such disease in plants is slowly coming to an end. For the first time since 2006, state inspectors from the Department of Agriculture and Markets have found no evidence of the plum pox virus in stone fruit trees in New York state.

Due to negative test results three years in a row, more than 10,000 acres in Orleans County and more than 14,000 acres in Wayne County will be released from a regulated area designation to a quarantine area designation. This means that Prunus trees can once again be planted for fruit or ornamental purposes in what was once a “no plant zone.”

Propagation, including collecting budwood and nursery plantings, is still not allowed in this quarantine area.

This is huge news for two of our state’s largest agricultural counties. It’s also great news for farmers who will now be able to plant once again.

Plum pox, like all viruses in plants, is not contagious to humans, but it’s potentially devastating to trees and fruits. Yields are reduced, tree life is shortened, and fruits are disfigured to the point where they become unmarketable.

New York is the only state in the nation where plum pox is still located.

I remember vividly how miserable I was when I had the chickenpox. A similar economic misery is felt by farmers impacted by plum pox. Farmers who have trees infected with the virus or who are located in those areas quarantined because of this disease are impacted for years. Peach growers always have to guard against this disease.

I only had chickenpox for a week. Plum pox can last for years. Thankfully, through proven techniques and the work of dedicated staff, we’re doing our best to nip this disease in the bud once and for all.

Darrel J. Aubertine is commissioner of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

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