Freeze has taken huge toll on agriculture in Valley

Freeze has taken huge toll on agriculture in Valley

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Mani Skaria has been through this before.

When the temperatures dropped below freezing this month, it was impossible not to think back to the 1989 freeze that wiped out more than 20,000 acres of citrus. He had seen it firsthand, just a year after he moved to the Rio Grande Valley to work as a faculty member at the Texas A&M Citrus Center.

A Washington Post article published that year was headlined “TEXAS CITRUS GROWERS FEAR CROP IS DESTROYED.” Three decades later, staring at his own citrus operation in Hargill, a rural town about an hour’s drive from the border with Mexico, Skaria feels the same heartache.

“When I drive around my own orchard and other places, it looks very sad,” said Skaria, the owner of US Citrus, a company known for its fresh produce boxes sent directly to subscribers. The leaves are all brown, and vertical cracks break open the trunks — signs that don’t bode well for the trees’ survival, he said.



Initial tallies indicate more than $300 million in losses to the citrus industry alone — “but that really doesn’t tell the whole story,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said.


“That’s just the fruit lost,” Miller said. “The trees are damaged. We’re going to lose a lot of trees. It’s so bad that we’re not going to have a crop next year — all the blooms are gone. They basically lost not one crop, but two crops.”

Oranges and grapefruit bore most of the damage — farmers had already harvested more than half their supply for the season, but the remaining fruit was devastated. Growers lost all their oranges and about 60 percent of the grapefruit still on trees; the other 40 percent might be salvaged for juice, Miller said.


The freeze wreaked havoc on other crops, too, from onions and cabbage to cilantro and celery.

“It looks a little bleak here in the Valley right now,” said Dennis Holbrook, the owner of South Tex Organics, based in Mission. “We’ve got all shades of dead brown. I guess that’s a way to put it.”

Tallying the loss

It will take weeks before citrus farmers are able to fully tally their losses, which depend heavily on whether their trees can bear fruit in the future. If the trees die, it’ll be a years-long process to start over, leaving farmers to decide whether it’s worth a long-term investment.


“A lot of those guys will just hang it up,” Miller said. “They’ll quit. It takes seven years to re-establish those trees.”

Past winter storms, hurricanes and urbanization have already depleted the citrus industry, which counted about 70,000 acres in the early 1980s but has roughly 23,000 today, said Juan Anciso, a horticulturist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service based in Weslaco.

The December 1989 freeze is the most comparable crisis to this month’s disaster, and it followed a similar event in 1983 — folklore among longtime growers. In both years, the destruction was so widespread that citrus acreage was diminished by about two-thirds each time, Anciso said.

Similar damage this year would mean less than 10,000 acres for the Texas citrus industry. There is a possibility that some older trees were able to survive the weather, which would cut down on lost acreage, but there is no immediate way to know the extent of the damage, he said.

“I’m still crossing my fingers and hopeful that a lot of these orchards were mature and fairly hardened,” Anciso said.

Skaria estimates his initial losses at $8 million to $10 million. US Citrus won’t be able to fulfill its orders for subscription boxes this spring, he said.

“We are supposed to ship four to five hundred boxes today, and we have to tell them that we don’t have the fruit,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “That will be stopped for a good amount of time.”

More broadly, shipments to grocery stores will also be affected for at least the next several weeks, and consumers can expect prices to rise as local growers count their losses.

Skaria’s operation is a bit different from other citrus growers. He specializes in a micro-budding grafting technique, which he says allows farmers to plant more trees per acre and grow the fruit more quickly. It also may mean a faster recovery for his farm, with the chance of a full comeback in about three years, compared with six or seven for others in the industry, he said.

‘Damage control’ mode

Currently, farmers are in “damage control” mode, just harvesting everything that’s made it through the storm, said Duane McDaniel, an adjuster with Great American Crop Insurance who also grows citrus.

“We don’t know how badly it’s hurt,” he said. “You couldn’t hardly put a dollar figure on it.”

Insurance will cover some of the damage, including the immediate fruit losses, but it will take weeks or months before farmers see any of that money, and it likely won’t cover the entirety of the costs. Most citrus is covered, but that’s not true for all crops.

“Those folks that have insurance — that’d be similar to having insurance on your home and there’s a fire,” said Anciso, the Extension Service horticulturist. “You get some value, but you probably don’t get your full value to totally replace the home.”

In the meantime, farmers are turning to the government for help. President Joe Biden has declared a major disaster in 126 of Texas’ 254 counties, including Hidalgo and Cameron, allowing residents of those areas to access federal disaster aid, though that doesn’t necessarily include coverage for lost crops.

Holbrook, the owner of South Tex Organics, called citrus growers the “biggest gamblers” in the farming industry because so much of their crops’ success — from very specific weather conditions to market pricing — is out of their control.

“We work very diligently in trying to produce products for the consuming public, and we take some pretty heavy risk in doing so,” he said. “Sometimes, we need to be looked at and perhaps taken care of, because we have a tremendous amount of financial investment in our growth and all our equipment — everything that’s involved.”

Aside from the fruit losses, the storm has also displaced a large labor force that would be harvesting, packing, shipping and selling the product, he said.

“People need to realize that there’s a lot more to food than just going to your H-E-B and buying it over the counter,” Holbrook said.

U.S. Reps. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, and Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a disaster designation, which would offer emergency loans and other assistance to affected producers in qualifying counties. In total, 33 members of Congress from Texas signed onto the letter — all but two members of the state’s sitting congressional delegation.

“This winter storm came at a time when Texas’ hardworking farm and ranch families were already struggling through COVID-19,” the members wrote. “They were also working to recover from other extreme weather events, such as hurricanes in South Texas and drought in other regions of the state. … When you combine all these factors together, it makes it extremely difficult for producers to continue feeding and clothing the world.”

Like those in nearly every other industry, farmers have been hard-hit by the pandemic. Travel restrictions, business closures and coronavirus outbreaks have disrupted the supply chain, leading to large food and financial losses.

“Farmers and ranchers — they are resilient people,” said Gonzales, who co-chairs the Texas Agriculture Task Force. “They will fight through anything, and I think what is important is that we encourage them to keep fighting, and we give them resources to keep fighting.”

A difficult path

The USDA’s State Emergency Board has recommended seven counties for a disaster declaration: Cameron, Duval, Hidalgo, McLennan, Starr, Webb and Zapata. The agency is also considering physical loss notifications, another type of disaster declaration that would offer low-interest emergency loans to growers, for 41 Texas counties, said Eddie Trevino, acting state executive director for the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

In the meantime, the USDA is encouraging any affected farmers to contact one of its 173 local service centers. Some aid programs do not require a disaster declaration, and local representatives may be able to offer specific advice or aid for growers harmed by the storm, Trevino said.

“Last week was tough on our Texas farmers and ranchers,” he said. “We want to reassure agricultural producers who have suffered damage and loss to their operations during the recent winter storms that USDA is here to help by providing technical and financial assistance.”

At the state level, the Texas Department of Agriculture is highlighting its agriculture relief fund, a donation-based reimbursement program that can help farmers restore their operations after the cold-weather crisis.

“We don’t get government dollars,” said Miller, the agriculture commissioner. “We raise that money from individuals, companies, corporations — and then we send that 100 percent back out.”

Dale Murden, the president of Texas Citrus Mutual, said this month’s freeze caps a “wild 11-month period” that included the coronavirus pandemic and Hurricane Hanna. Looking at the crop damage now “gives you a hollow pit in the middle of your stomach, because you’ve got no income and you’re looking at a stack of bills to pay.”

Going forward, he asks the public to “remember that you like Texas grapefruit and Texas oranges” and to offers support for farmers when they begin selling again. He knows the industry will recover eventually, but the path will be difficult.

“The industry has always come back,” he said. “The industry has always come back a little better. But the industry has come back a little smaller each time.”


cayla.harris@express-news.net



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