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Deadly beauty: Lawmakers unite at Va La Vineyards to shine light on local decimation caused by spotted lanternfly

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NEW GARDEN — Friend or foe?

As wise people often warn, never trust a book by its cover.

And while the spotted lanternfly, an invasive species from Southeast Asia, features beautifully juxtaposed black, white and red-colored wings, in abundance, they smother native trees, plants and destroy vines.

If not addressed with solutions to mitigate this threat, the impact of the spotted lanternfly could harm the economy in Pennsylvania by an estimated $324 million loss annually, according to economic research conducted by Penn State. As a result, the university also predicts that the Commonwealth shall soon also suffer the loss of approximately 2,800 jobs.

The invasive species arrived to the North America in the last decade and was first reported in Pennsylvania in 2014.

On Friday, U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan D-6th, of Easttown, visited Va La Vineyards in the greater Avondale region of New Garden Township, a few miles southeast of Kennett Square and just north of Hockessin, Delaware.

“My visit today at Va La Vineyards confirmed the work ahead of us in combating the spotted lanternfly,” Houlahan said.

Houlahan convened at Va La on Sept. 4, at the onset of Labor Day weekend, alongside fellow dignitaries including county and state elected officials. Those present included state Rep. Christina Sappey, D-158th, of West Bradford and Chester County Commissioners Marian Moskowitz, chair, and Josh Maxwell, vice chair.

Va La owners Anthony Vietri and Karen Vietri hosted the educational forum which included a tour through the vineyard property from its historic renovated barn to acres of vines.

"As a small family farm struggling to battle this scourge, we are very grateful for the efforts of Representative Houlahan, and the bipartisan efforts of Congress, to fund the necessary research to find solutions to this issue before it is too late," Anthony Vietri said.

"This insect will soon threaten the entire East Coast, and quite likely well beyond that, and so there is great urgency to find solutions," Vietri said.

There are 300 vineyards in Pennsylvania, he said.

The Sept. 4 event at Va La Vineyards with lawmakers featured a press briefing and several live question-and-answer sessions.

Entomologist Heather Leach, a top researcher of Penn State University also attended. She shared efforts and answered background questions regarding the impact of the spotted lanternfly in Pennsylvania since its arrival to North America.

During her remarks, Houlahan said a bipartisan effort is underway in Congress to combat the spotted lanternfly here at home.

“In Congress, I’m working with my colleague from across the aisle, Rep. G.T. Thompson (R-Pa.) to provide the necessary resources to fight this pest," she said. "Building on the funds we secured last year for this community, I led our delegation – Democrats and Republicans – in advocating an increase of funding for spotted lanternfly research and control."

Through this advocacy, if the proposal is approved in Washington, D.C., budgetary funds to the U.S. Department of Agriculture from Congress will increase to $16 million from $12 million for research and control efforts to combat the spotted lanternfly, stateside.

"I’m hopeful that this funding will be upheld by the Senate," the congresswoman said. "It's crucial that we continue efforts at a both local and national level to eradicate this invasive species." Houlahan voted in favor of this proposed fiscal increase earlier this summer during a July 24 session of the U.S. House of Representatives.

"Our agriculture sector is so important to our community,” Houlahan said.

Va La Vineyards recently celebrated it 20th anniversary. Vietri's family has lived in the Avondale region for more than 100 years.

"The explosion of the spotted lantern fly in our state is unlike anything that we witnessed before," Vietri said. "To date, nothing has stopped its advance, and it now threatens to bring massive destruction to our native forests, to homeowners, and to our farms."

The farmer added, "14,000 acres of grapes, and tens of thousands of acres of other crops in the Commonwealth, are now at risk."

Efforts to combat this novel invasive species in the Commonwealth is a balancing act, as chemicals, for instance, can equally harm a plethora of native species already at the precipice of extinction including praying mantises. These indigenous species of the Americas are similar to the spotted lanternfly in that they reach their maturity during the same seasonal weeks as the spotted lanternfly. If someone sprays chemicals on a plant to kill the spotted lanterflies, that action may also kill praying mantises as well as other native insects, including monarch butterflies.

Experts issue warnings

The spotted lanternfly is an invasive insect which has swiftly become abundant in Southeastern Pennsylvania, officials warn. There have also been sightings in a few neighboring states.

"This planthopper weakens plants by feeling on sap," according to an informative brochure found today at local parks on the spotted lanternfly. Penn State created the publication in collaboration with state and federal agriculture departments in 2018.

"The pest threatens important agricultural commodities, including the grape, hardwood, tree fruit, landscape, and nursery industries — sectors that contribute nearly $18 billion annually to Pennsylvania's economy," according to Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences.

These experts also warn that besides tree damage, when spotted lanternflies feed, they excrete a sugary substance, called honeydew, that encourages the growth of black sooty mold.

The smothering, or invasion, of spotted lanternflies upon native trees and vines in Southeastern Pennsylvania first became prevalent in 2017, but this summer their presence has quantified at an alarming rate.

In 2017, Pennsylvania issued a quarantine of Chester County order requiring that all goods traveling regionally or interstate must first undergo an inspection to prevent the transport of the spotted lanternfly elsewhere.

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