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Texas citrus shipments underway

by Tim Linden | October 20, 2009
Most Texas citrus packinghouses were in production by the middle of October, and volume of oranges and grapefruit from the Lone Star State was starting to increase.

"We started oranges yesterday and started grapefruit one day last week," Mike Martin, president of Rio Queen Citrus Inc. in Mission, TX, said Oct. 20. "We are about a week later than last year just like everyone else. I think just about all the sheds are operating now or will be opening up in the next couple of days."

He said that volume typically climbs slowly but steadily through November until the Thanksgiving holiday, and then moves into peak volume after that. "Thanksgiving isn't a big citrus holiday, but Christmas is," he said.

The hot dry summer was the cause of the delay in maturity of the oranges and grapefruit, according to Mr. Martin. "Sugar was high, but the juices weren't where they should be. But we had some good rain in September which brought the juice content up," he added.

As would be expected, Mr. Martin said that early movement is good and prices are "seasonally correct." He added, "Prices [on grapefruit] are in the teens with the big fruit selling in the low 20s."

He said that the start of the season typically commands a pretty good price as there is not a lot of fruit competition for the retail shelf. Most of the summer fruit volume has been cleaned up, and retailers are happy to start stocking grapefruit.

Mr. Martin expects total citrus volume from Texas to be on par with previous seasons, which means a crop of about 10 million cartons on a close to 75-25 split with the state's signature red grapefruit representing the larger percentage number. "Early on some were predicting a crop slightly down, and the USDA estimated a 4 percent decline, but I think it will pack out at about the same as last year," he said.

It is very difficult to judge the total size of the crop before packing begins, which is when the 4 percent decline figure was released, according to Mr. Martin. "Every grove is different, he said. Since we started packing, we have noted that the fruit is a little bit larger than we expected (which will increase total volume on a carton basis), and it is also a lot cleaner than last year (which means fewer culls). Last year we had Hurricane Dolly come through here in the summer followed by lots of rain. That resulted in some scarring that we just don't have this year."

As far as Rio Queen is concerned, Mr. Martin said that the status quo is in store for this season with no new packs or products being introduced. "We spent a lot of our time [this past summer] working on [Produce Traceability Initiative]. PTI is the new buzzword, and we are working on a system that will help us meet the benchmarks."

For the firm's two citrus packing facilities, the Rio Queen executive said that compliance will be relatively easy, although it requires a substantial investment. "We are looking to see what we can do in-house, he said. We do not want to use a third-party company. We are looking at putting on a second barcode that will give us lots of information for our own use as well as create the traceability that is needed."

Mr. Martin said that the additional bar code will include the actual person who packed the product as well as where it was packed and the pack date and pack time. Besides complying with the traceability mandate, the information will also be used by the firm's accounting department to calculate payroll.

"We pay the packers based on the number of cartons they pack, which is common practice down here [in the Rio Grande Valley citrus industry], and this will allow us to gather that information simply by scanning the bar code," he said.

Although Rio Queen is moving to incorporate traceability into the company's operations, Mr. Martin said that it is doing it with a little hesitation due to the uncertainty that the industry's PTI will be exactly what may be eventually mandated.

"Eventually Congress is going to turn their attention toward food safety, and they may not adopt exactly what the produce industry is trying to do," he said. "The industry prescription may not fit with what USDA or FDA prescribes."