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Strong market epitomizes items moving through Texas

by Tim Linden | April 19, 2010
Spring has brought good weather and a promise of increased supplies of onions, mangos and limes, but for each of those crops, to one degree or another, supply is still outstripped by demand, and strong markets prevail.

The onion market by far is the strongest. In fact, on Wednesday, April 7, cartons and bags of jumbo white onions were selling for as much as $65, an almost unheard of price, except it has been a hot market since February, with each week seemingly setting new records for high prices. And while there will be some relief in the sweet onion market, whites should stay red hot for quite a while.

"It's pretty typical," said Don Ed Holmes, owner of The Onion House in Weslaco, TX. "Last year we couldn't give white onions away, and so no one planted them this year and the market is as hot as it can be. Next year, we will probably over plant again."

Though April is bringing larger supplies of onions from Texas, supplies from the Northwest and Mexico were all but cleaned up after the first full week of April continuing the demand-exceeds-supply situation. "Our yields are down from one-third to one-half," said Mr. Holmes. "It's been a wet year, and so Texas has produced a mixed bag. Some varieties didn't get hurt so much, but other fields didn't set a crop. Some growers spent the money [protecting their onions for the moisture] and have a good crop, and others didn't and they have a poor crop. But in general, yields are down."

He said that California's onions will come off later this month but are going to be needed to fill demand in the far West. And Georgia growers in the Vidalia area are also expecting lower volumes this year. Adding to the situation has been much lower supplies than necessary in Mexico to feed the onion- craving consumers south of the border. "Mexico is just about cleaned up, so we expect Mexican buyers of white and yellows back in our market next week."

It all adds up to an excellent onion market through April and into May. Mr. Holmes said that in early April, the jumbo market for sacks and cartons of yellow onions was between $35 and $40 to complement the white onion market. "Those prices will come down a bit, but this is shaping up to be a very good market all season," he added.

Richard Ruiz, president and chief executive officer of Ruiz Sales in Edinburg, TX, said that warm spring weather in Mexico was bringing on the Persian lime crop, and he expected supplies to jump as April turns into May. "We've moved a lot of limes, which had high prices this winter. But in May and June, supplies will increase and the market will come down."

Mr. Ruiz painted a similar picture for the mango market, which also features mostly fruit from Mexico at this time of year. He said that mango prices have been high since the beginning of the Mexican deal in January and February, which has put the brakes on many retail promotional efforts. Mangos are high-volume items that are often sold at very promotable prices at retail such as two or three mangos for a dollar. But so far this year, those types of promotions have been absent.

"We should be in good shape by Cinco de Mayo," Mr. Ruiz said. "What's today? April 7? Yeah, in about four weeks, supplies will be better and there will be more promotions."

Ronnie Cohen, vice president of sales for Vision Import Group LLC in River Edge, NJ, agreed with that timing prediction. He said that the early-season Mexican crop was running well behind volume numbers from last year, but by the end of April and the beginning of May, regular seasonal fluctuation will start to change that.

Many different Mexican states produce mangos, and a good percentage of the fruit crosses into the United States in Texas. The early-season production districts were hit with the same cold weather and rain that plagued California and Florida vegetable shippers this winter, and it produced the same results: reduced supplies. But warmer weather has helped the later-producing districts, which are just beginning to send the always-popular red mango varieties to the U.S. market. As of early April, Mr. Cohen said that almost all the mangos crossing to that point had been the yellow Ataulfo variety. While connoisseurs swear that the yellow variety is every bit as good as the red mangos, the U.S. Anglo consumers tend to shop with their eyes and prefer the more appealing red-skinned fruit.

On the trade front, John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, was very happy to read some friendly comments from the new head of U.S. Customs & Border Protection.

Mr. McClung has long said that the movement of fresh produce from Mexico into the United States through Texas has become a very significant portion of the produce industry around the Rio Grande Valley. By all accounts, more than half the volume sold from south Texas originates in Mexico. As such, Mr. McClung said that the efficient movement of that produce is very important. With this backdrop, he was very happy to see an article in the San Antonio Express-News on Thursday morning, April 8, quoting Customs Commissioner Alan Bersin disputing press reports claiming that the Mexican drug violence is spilling into the United States. The commissioner did not try to minimize the violence in Mexico but said that incidents of violence in U.S. border cities cannot be compared to what is happening in Mexico.

Most importantly to Mr. McClung, Commissioner Bersin said that the job of securing the borders is not mutually exclusive with expediting trade.

"We have been saying for a long time that when you ask all of these agencies to do the things they are being asked including securing our borders, preventing invasive pests from coming into the United States and inspecting the food, you have to do it in an efficient manner so as not to hinder trade between our two countries," said Mr. McClung. "I think it is very important that we have the head of Customs & Border Protection saying the same thing and recognizing that fact."

Improving trade, Mr. McClung said, is neither a political nor a moral issue; it is merely a matter of money. He said that the U.S. border can be protected and trade can continue at a brisk pace if the staffing is in place to facilitate it.

(For more on Texas onions, melons and tropicals, see the April 19, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)