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Citrus canker found in grove

A virulent strain of citrus canker has infected a Highland County orange grove, state agriculture officials confirmed Monday, but it is not likely to spread further. Inspectors from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services confirmed that canker was found on 214 orange trees owned by Smoak Groves Inc. in Lake Placid in Highland County, which is south of Polk in the center of the state. Smoak owns 2,400 acres of orange groves.

The infected trees are in three locations in a 400-acre block of land containing 70,000 trees. Surrounding tree lots, which are 2 miles to 5 miles away, were unaffected.

"We're sure it can be contained," said Maeve McConnell, information specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, noting scientific strides in fighting the disease. "We've had good success on Florida's West Coast, where we've found it before."

The A-strain, in its worst form, causes unripened fruit to drop from the trees. In its most common form it puts lesions on fruit, making it difficult to sell fresh.

In 1984, an outbreak of citrus canker prompted state authorities to burn millions of citrus trees. Later, it was discovered that what authorities thought was a kind of A-strain canker was actually a relatively harmless leaf-spotting disease.

Last month the federal government lifted a statewide ban on shipping fresh citrus out of the state. The quarantine remains in Manatee county, where A-strain canker was found in a commercial grove as late as January.

Agriculture officials suspect the canker in the Smoak grove came from farm machinery or personnel who had previously worked in Manatee, said Richard Gaskalla, director of the Agriculture Department's division of plant industry.

He added that the infected trees and those surrounding them may have to be burned, cut back or defoliated, something that a special task force will decide Thursday. Afterword, inspectors will check the area every 30 days for two years from the last sighting before fruit from the area can be sold again.

Florida will reimburse grove owners for the cost of destroying the trees, but not for the lost trees themselves.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.