Dale Murden, a farmer and president of Texas Citrus Mutual, said growers lost up to 70% of their crops during last year’s winter storm that caused agricultural and livestock losses of more than $600 million in the Lone Star State.
Damage and disruption from the bitter blast of cold and snow are still being felt, as Murden and other growers saw minimal citrus production this season in Texas’ subtropical Rio Grande Valley. Thousands of acres of groves usually produce bountiful harvests of grapefruits, oranges, lemons, limes and more.
Mission, Texas-based Texas Citrus Mutual is a nonprofit association representing the interests of citrus growers.
“When the winter storm hit [in February], we had last year’s crop, but we were also blooming and going into our next crop for 2022, so this season we’re harvesting about 30% of a normal crop,” Murden told FreightWaves. “It really was a double-edged sword for us. We lost two different crops.”
Rio Grande Valley growers are also having to contend with everything from labor shortages to higher fertilizer prices to rising transportation costs.
“We’re battling COVID-related labor shortages, people that basically we need for harvesting and packing crews, there’s not enough right now,” said Tommy Wilkins, director of sales at Donna-based Grow Farms Texas. “We’re also battling extremely expensive freight rates, and you know, it’s not like we don’t need more things to deal with.”
Like most industries, agriculture is dependent on transportation to move citrus commodities and other agricultural products from point to point, while also receiving supplies and material for use on their farms.
Demand for refrigerated or reefer truckload capacity has been hot throughout early January, trending higher into what is usually a slower period for the sector. The majority of fresh produce in the agricultural sector is hauled by reefer trucks.
Truckload reefer spot rates hit a high of $4.88, including fuel surcharges, on Jan. 9, compared to $3.82 in the same period in 2021.
Reefer rates have come down slightly over the last two weeks as more capacity returned to the market following the holidays, but in general, rates for on-demand capacity continue to rise, showing continued tightness in the reefer sector.
The Rio Grande Valley is the epicenter of Texas’ produce industry. The area stretches across the southeastern tip of Texas along the U.S.-Mexico border. The region includes cities such as Donna, Edinburg, McAllen, Mission and Pharr.
More than 35 types of fruits and vegetables are grown in the Rio Grande Valley, including grapefruit, oranges, avocados, cabbage, aloe vera, onions, sugarcane and watermelons. Texas is the third-largest citrus-producing state behind California and Florida, with the Rio Grande Valley citrus industry bringing in an estimated $468 million in annual business.
Last winter’s storm — which saw below-freezing temperatures across much of the state from about Feb. 14 to 20 — caused $230 million in damage to the Rio Grande Valley’s citrus crops, as well as $150 million in damages to vegetable crops, according to data from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.
Livestock losses — including cattle, sheep, goats and poultry — across Texas caused by the February 2021 storm totaled about $228 million.
This season, citrus production in the Rio Grande Valley is down 39% from the 2019-20 season, with orange production down 22% and grapefruit production down 45%.
“Our citrus program got hurt pretty bad and you don’t recover from that in a year,” Wilkins said. “It’s going to be two and three years before this citrus program gets back to where it was.”
Grow Farms Texas is a grower and shipper of fruits and vegetables, with farms in both Texas and Mexico.
Along with grapefruit and oranges, lemon and lime trees in the Rio Grande Valley were also decimated last year, said Juan Anciso, a horticulturist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
“The lemon and lime trees were wiped out mostly,” Anciso said. “We have anywhere from 100 to 200 acres of limes in the valley and some Meyer lemons. The lemon trees and lime trees, because they’re constantly blooming, are very fragile and more susceptible to cold.”
The damage from the winter storm along with other factors were enough to push some citrus growers out of the industry, said Dante Galeazzi, president of the Texas International Produce Association.
“We did see a few citrus growers decide to sell their groves following the freeze, but I think that’s due to a combination of factors,” Galeazzi said. “The freeze certainly would have put financial pressure on producers who were hard hit by the weather, but urbanization in the state, increasing regulations and — especially so to this point — extremely favorable real estate conditions, sometimes make the opportunity to sell more attractive than to continue.”
Last summer, Galeazzi said citrus growers were focused on restoring damaged trees back to health to preserve harvest yields for 2023.
“This summer, once the crop is off the trees, growers will be very focused on trimming deadwood, branches and limbs which did not recover after the freeze and other maintenance that had to be postponed,” Galeazzi said. “This process, while expensive, is necessary and will help the 2022 crop, beginning in October, come closer in line to a normal season’s average production. 2023 should see a return to pre-freeze output.”
Vegetable crops in the Rio Grande Valley fared better this season but still face many challenges.
“The vegetable growers, fortunately, are dealing with annual crops so their plantings this year are OK,” Galeazzi said. “Their challenge has really been the long list of supply chain bottlenecks that most of the world is dealing with. The sooner the U.S. and other countries can reestablish or normalize traditional supply chains, the better off many of our members — growers, importers, grocery and food service — will be.”
Galeazzi said input costs — such as pallets, fertilizers and packaging — are creating more headaches for growers this season.
“We are seeing transportation costs that are 100% higher than normal,” Galeazzi said. “Labor shortages, input shortages, slowdowns in upstream orders due to their personnel shortages — all of these factors play into the economics of the fresh produce industry and the ability to make a return.”
Murden said fertilizer costs are up anywhere from 130% to 230% for farmers and growers.
“That’s a nationwide issue, not just a South Texas issue — lots of reasons for that, everything from trade barriers to natural gas prices, you name it,” Murden said. “It’s not just one thing that we can attribute to high fertilizer prices this year.”
Anciso said for consumers, it means higher prices for fruits and vegetables at the supermarket.
“For the Texas grapefruit and oranges, they’re going to be expensive because there’s low supply,” Anciso said. “That’s part of the reason, but in general, even vegetables, because of COVID-related transportation issues, like cost of fuel, everything is up.”
Despite the many challenges this season has brought to the Rio Grande Valley, growers remain hopeful.
“I started in this industry when I was 13 years old and have worked 47 years in this business,” Wilkins said. “I love this industry. I love what I do. I look forward to coming into work and as long as my mind is with me, I don’t ever want to retire.”
Murden said growers are tough people who don’t give up easily.
“Citrus is a long-term endeavor — you plant a tree and it’s five years before you get any return on that investment,” Murden said. “You have to love this, that’s about the only way I know how to put it. When things are out of your control, you have to put your heart and your soul in it.”
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