Rio Grande Valley citrus groves and packing houses are buzzing with activity as this year’s harvest season kicks into high gear for what is predicted to a bountiful yield that could pump as much as $200 million into the local economy.
“I think we are shaping up to have a really good year,” said Dale Murden, president of Texas Citrus Mutual. “Our estimates are above last year. The crop is looking really good and production is expected to be strong.”
Murden, also a Valley citrus grower, said this year’s harvest got an early start. “Actually I couldn’t believe it but this year the navel oranges got started in August when it usually doesn’t get going until September. Grapefruit started in September. The rain slowed us up a little but it’s picking up again. The sizes and grades look really good.”
The South Texas citrus industry spans across some 27,000 acres in Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties, with about 80 percent of the production coming from Hidalgo. In 2016 testimony before the House Committee on Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research, Murden said the Valley grows more than nine million cartons of fresh grapefruits and oranges each year and another five million cartons for fruit juice.
The farm gate value, or the net value of the citrus when it leaves the farm less marketing costs, is about $100 million a year. “Just the fresh fruit is valued at $100 million with a total economic impact at just under $200 million,” Murden said.
Dr. John da Graca, director of the Texas A&M-Kingsville Citrus Center in Weslaco, agreed the outlook for this season’s harvest is good, although it hasn’t been without some issues. “Some of the grapefruit has not set as good as we have seen in the past,” he said. “Some trees bloomed as much as three times this year, probably due to a mild winter. Early blooms will provide the best quality fruit.”
As far as the orange crop is concerned, da Graca said the fruit sets have been more normal. “I have seen some trees just loaded with fruit.”
The citrus harvest is pretty much finished in California, da Graca said, and Florida is behind due to damage from Hurricane Irma. What impact the Florida problems may have on prices for Texas citrus is uncertain since more fruit, especially oranges, from the Sunshine State go to juicing while the majority of fruit from the Lone Star State is destined for markets.
“When there is a shortage elsewhere it benefits growers in other places. The price of fruit will be up this year,” Murden said. Looking at the quality we may be able to put more fruit in the box,” Murden said, noting that typically 60 percent of the Valley crop goes to market while 40 percent is juiced.
Da Graca said Valley grapefruit growers may benefit more from the problems in Florida. “There could well be a shortage of grapefruit. If prices are good our growers will benefit. We don’t want to see our friends in Florida hurt, of course, but it does have an impact on prices.”
A part of the Valley economy for well over a century, the citrus industry really found its footing in the 1930s when the Ruby Red grapefruit was patented, leading to more than 100,000 acres planted by the 1940s, according to a 2008 report by Julian W. Sauls, a professor and extension horticulturist who spent time as a citrus specialist with the Texas A&M research center in Weslaco.
As with other agricultural ventures in South Texas farmland gave way to development over the years, resulting in lower acreage for most all crops. However, there are signs more citrus acreage may be added in the near future.
“Budwood sales numbers are up,” Murden said. Budwood is the term for short lengths of young branches with buds used to graft onto rootstock to grow new trees. “Just looking at those numbers there will be an additional 3,000 to 4,000 acres planted in the next two years.”
Da Graca said growers are also doing a better job of fighting damage caused by fruit flies and citrus greening, a bacterial disease that can kill citrus trees. “Those are two different battles that have to be fought at the same time. We are seeing some trees, especially younger ones, where the growers are taking better care of their orchards through fertilizer and pesticides.”