Research Funding Efforts Underway to Control Spotted Lanternfly Infestation
By Richard L. Gaw
To those who know about the science of making wine – from
the oenophiles to the people who write about the subject for slick touristy
magazines – Anthony Vietri of Va La Vineyard in Avondale has achieved the
title of Master Winemaker.
From his 6.7-acre vineyard of stony southern Pennsylvania soil, Vietri has for the past several years grown, harvested and created small batch wines that have consistently ranked Va La among the 100 best wineries in America.
Last September, as he was beginning to cultivate yet another year of his award-winning whites and reds, Vietri noticed that an unfamiliar insect had landed near him. That very small and attractive bug was a Spotted Lanternfly, and one year later, this evasive species has proliferated to dangerous populations and threatens to annihilate not only Vietri’s vineyard but all of the 14,000 acres owned and operated by the 300 wineries throughout Pennsylvania – considered the sixth-largest producer of wine in the United States.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Vietri said while giving visitors a tour of the Va La tasting room. “They’re everywhere.”
First detected in Berks County in 2014, the Spotted Lanternfly (SLF), a plant-hopping insect that is native to Asia, has continued to saturate the Mid-Atlantic region by feeding on grapevines, hops, hardwoods and fruit trees.
As of August 2019, SLF began to be found in other parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, as well as detected in the Northeast states of New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.
During a Sept. 4 press conference Vietri hosted at the vineyard that introduced some key stakeholders in Pennsylvania’s attempt to control – and if possible, eradicate the SLF – he said that he joins with other wineries across the state in what he called a “battle” to save the state’s growing wine industry as well as the entire agriculture landscape.
To help him and his fellow vineyard owners, Vietri invited several key stakeholders, whose respective work in the last few years has thrown a proverbial lasso around what has been done, what still needs to be done and what funding has been raised and is still projected to be raised in the fight to stave off a potentially devastating environmental and economic disaster.
With the row-after-row vista of the Va La Vineyard grapevines behind her, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan spelled out the now ugly reality of the pest’s presence on the county, one that shows no signs of disappearing.
“Yesterday, I was in Coatesville and the outside of the balcony that I was sitting on at the health center tour was coated with Spotted Lantern Flies,” she said. “We do have allies in our community, because we do recognize how much of pest this insect is.”
Houlahan, who represents the state’s 6th district, has helped spearhead a bipartisan effort this year in the hopes of ensuring the appropriation of more funding to research and combat the proliferation of the insect in Pennsylvania.
In a March 13, 2020 letter she and Republican Sen. Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson (15th District) sent to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, FDA and Regulated Agencies, it asked the subcommittee for a total funding of $16 million in fiscal year 2021 – a $4 million increase from the $12 million allocated in fiscal year 2020.
“As members from areas affected by SLF or at risk of infestation from this invasive species, we see this as an urgent but modest investment in our region’s economy and environment,” Houlahan and Thompson wrote.
Seed money for research
Although the proposed request for funding increase – which passed in the House of Representatives -- now sits in the Senate waiting for approval, those at the front lines of the battle to control the pest have already received substantial seed money to get several projects off the ground.
In 2018, U.S. Agricultural Secretary Sonny Perdue allocated $17.5 million in emergency funding to combat SLF, and in 2019, the USDA allocated $10 million to several states including Pennsylvania to support additional research.
At the end of 2019, USDA funded an additional $7.3 million grant to Penn State, whose College of Agricultural Sciences, Penn State Berks and Penn State Extension have been collaborating with The Center for Agricultural Sciences and Sustainable Development to study methods of keeping the population of SLF from doing additional damage to the state’s agricultural landscape.
In her comments, State Rep. Christina Sappey (158th District), a member of the Agricultural Committee in the State House of Representatives, made reference to the passage of Act 35 in 2019, that created the Pennsylvania Rapid Response Disaster Readiness Account, a funding source that allocated $3 million to Penn State Extension to conduct more research on the SLF. She said that the state legislature will continue to seek additional funding in the near future.
“It’s been an education on everybody’s part as this insect moves west from Berks County across Chester County,” she said. “As a child of the 1970s, I remember the gypsy moth infestation and what a threat that was, as it moved west across the country. We’re going to have to confront that here as well.
“We have history on our side, and while we know we’ve been through a lot of different insects, we also know that this one is unique,” Sappey added. “Agriculture is Pennsylvania’s number one industry, and whether you live near or farm or whether you don’t, we all eat and we all drink, which is why we have taken this threat so seriously.”
While securing the much-needed funding to take the SLF head on has received good marks in the last few years, these efforts are being achieved against the backdrop of a staggering forecast. In a study conducted by Penn State for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the potential damage and lost revenue to the state’s economy due the SLF could amount to $324 million annually, and lead to the loss of thousands of agricultural jobs across the state.
Heather Leach, the Spotted Lantern Fly Extension Associate at Penn State Extension, said that among the many agricultural resources that have been impacted by the insect, vineyards are the most heavily impacted to date, “in terms of the actual loss we are seeing, and the feeding damage we are seeing from this insect.”
“I would go as far as to say that this bug is staggering, and we have never seen anything like this in eastern vineyards,” she added. “It’s putting growers in a really tight situation in terms of how to effectively manage this pest.”
The chief problem, Leach said, is that the insect feeds on other crops, which puts stress on those plants that causes a reduction in photosynthesis, a reduction in yield and a greater sensitivity to cold conditions.
“If we happen to have a cold winter in Pennsylvania, then we’re more likely to lose that crop or those vines,” she said. “If you lose a vine entirely, you have to replant and wait several years before you’re actually getting yield on that vine again, so these losses can be extremely staggering and alter the industry, as well.”
Leach also said that because Chester County is also a Spotted Lantern Fly quarantined community, it forces the necessity to inspect every agricultural resource before it is shipped, and consequently, places an additional financial burden on labor costs.
Despite the growing reality that the SLF is not going away for the immediate future, Leach said the Penn State Extension and its many partners remain committed to boots-in-the-ground work.
“I work with researchers, and we’re trying to understand more about the insect’s biology and its behavior,” she said. “We certainly have a very active goal to try to understand how to best control this bug, and to create a team of experienced individuals who know a lot about mating disruption, chemical control or trapping, in order to pull in these experts and create a good defense against the Spotted Lantern Fly.
“While we’ve made great strides, there is also that recognition that we have a lot more work to do.”
For additional information on how Chester County residents can help contain the Spotted Lantern Fly population, visit the Penn State Entomology Extension website at https://extension.psu.edu/spotted-lanternfly-management-for-residents and https://extension.psu.edu/spotted-lanternfly-management-resources.
To learn more about what the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture is doing about the Spotted Lanternfly, visit https://services.agriculture.pa.gov/SLFReport.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email email@example.com.