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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

More than 14,400 acres of land in Niagara County can again be used to plant stone fruit trees — including peaches, plums, nectarines and apricots — some for the first time since 2006.

For the third year in a row, inspectors have detected no evidence of the invasive species Plum Pox Virus in stone fruit trees in New York State, leading to local farmers being allowed to again use the land, which had been labeled a strict "regulated area" and that prunes trees can once again be planted in what was a "no plant zone."

The deregulation will mean that Bittner-Singer Orchards in Appleton will be able to use 15 new acres for peach orchards this year and another 20 in 2016, according to owner Jim Bittner.

"Peach trees don’t live forever and we’ll soon need to replace some of our older orchards," Bittner said. "This new step taken by New York State will allow us to do that with new varieties and new, more efficient planting systems.”

"With the successful removal of this invasive species, a vital part of New York's agricultural industry can once again use the almost 15,000 affected acres," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this morning. "Farmers make their living off what they produce, and allowing fruit trees to be planted will help them meet their goals and continue contributing to one of the most important industries in this state."

In 2014, inspectors from the State Department of Agriculture collected nearly 120,000 samples in Niagara, Orleans and Wayne counties, which all tested negative for Plum Pox Virus. The testing was assisted by a $568,000 grant from the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

When stone fruit trees are infected with the Plum Pox Virus, yields are reduced, tree life is shortened, and fruits are disfigured to the point where they become unmarketable. The virus is spread on infested budwood or through transmission by aphids, a small insect. Plum Pox Virus does not pose any health risks to humans.

Prior to this new designation, Niagara County was the last county in the nation with an active Plum Pox Virus designation. The virus first appeared in the U.S. in Pennsylvania in October 1999 and was eradicated in that state in 2009. It first appeared in New York State in Niagara County in 2006 and was later found in Orleans and Wayne Counties. Since then, state inspectors have conducted surveys in the three county region. Wayne and Orleans Counties went from Regulated Area to Quarantine Area designation in 2012. Since then, both counties have had two years of clean monitoring survey for total of five years of negative samples to date. If at the end of the 2015 survey no positives are found in those two counties, all remaining restrictions on those two counties will be lifted.

State Agriculture Commissioner Richard A. Ball said, “Invasive species are a huge threat to our thriving agriculture industry, which is why a victory like this one is indeed worth celebrating. While we are not out of the woods yet in our efforts to eradicate Plum Pox Virus in New York, the fact that farmers can begin planting again is great news for Niagara County agriculture. I thank Governor Cuomo and our partners at all levels of government and industry for their continued support in our efforts to combat invasive species here in New York.”

Today’s success in near eradication of this disease is due in large part to the cooperation of all fruit and nursery growers in the state. Since the first detection of Plum Pox Virus in Niagara County, Agriculture and Markets staff have met individually each year with all affected fruit growers in New York State to go over the quarantine and ensure compliance. Additionally, they have worked with the nursery industry to make sure they know where they can and cannot sell plants, and know where they can and cannot propagate. The agency also required anyone in the area selling stone fruit plants to have a compliance agreement in place to ensure they were aware of the rules and regulations surrounding this invasive species.

New York produces an abundance of stone fruit, with thousands of acres devoted to peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots. New York ranks 11th in the nation for peaches, producing 6,680 tons valued at $11,156,000 in 2014.

The Department of Agriculture and Markets’ Division of Plant Industry works with federal and state agencies along with partners in the agriculture community to combat invasive species on agricultural lands. Active programs include the Asian Longhorned Beetle program in New York City and Long Island, the Golden Nematode program on Long Island and parts of some upstate counties including Steuben, Seneca and Wayne, and the Emerald Ash Borer program across the state.

New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton said, “New York Farm Bureau is happy that NYSDAM’s efforts to contain Plum Pox have paid off in the region. Our growers in Niagara County can once again have the option to plant the popular fruit varieties. Diversification is important to farmers who look to expand what they offer to consumers in order to reduce risk and support their bottom line."

Surveys in Niagara County included a focus on the area closest to the Niagara River since Canada still has this disease in its peach orchards. Before planting this year in the regulated area, fruit growers and nurseries are encouraged to contact the Plum Pox eradication program staff at (585) 370-1606.

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