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Rio Queen celebrating 40th anniversary with a banner year in view

by Chip Carter | October 11, 2010
Rio Queen Citrus in Mission, TX is readying to celebrate its 40th anniversary in the best way possible: with a banner citrus season.

"It all looks good right now. We've had a very good year for growing citrus, a wet winter and spring, and then we went through a little bit of dry time. June and July we had quite a bit of rain, then it turned hot and dry from mid-July to first of September, then September’s been wet, so that’s cooled it down some," said Rio Queen President Mike Martin. “We’re really pleased with the crop on the tree. The fruit’s been growing nicely, the shape is nice, the fruit is thin-skinned. This may be one of the best quality crops we’ve had in a long, long time due to the wet spring, six weeks of hot weather but otherwise a fairly mild summer, not much wind, not much wind scar.”

Rio Queen planned to start harvesting the first week of October and packing the week of Oct. 11.

“We’ll start with grapefruit,” Mr. Martin said. “There have been some oranges already harvested and out in the marketplace a little, but we like to wait and get a little more maturity and quality in the orange. That’s just our preference. We like to see our oranges a little more mature.”

Rio Queen incorporated Nov. 1, 1970, but the company’s roots stretch back a few years earlier. Mr. Martin’s grandfather, the late James Ware, a Missouri businessman, bought a 20-acre citrus grove in Mission in 1966, almost on a whim. When the business proved economically feasible, Mr. Martin’s parents packed up and headed south to tend the groves.

Since then, the company has grown exponentially. Rio Queen now owns 4,500 acres of south Texas citrus groves outright and farms other acreage under lease agreements. Though the Rio Star grapefruit is the core of the Rio Queen program, the company also grows row crops — primarily onions and honeydews — and its total operations comprise more than 9,000 acres across the Rio Grande Valley. “It’s a big program,” Mr. Martin said. “It’s enough to keep us busy, that’s for sure.”

He continued, “There were some good years, and there were some bad years. My father was able to buy when land prices were depressed, and we had a very good banker along the way. We built good relationships. We have a great customer base, very loyal, some we’ve been selling to for many years, and we’ve continued to cultivate that side of it. We have a good sales group, a great group of employees. We’ve got some old-timers who’ve been here a long time who are very much a part of the growth and success of the company. And we’ve done a lot of hard work.”

Rio Queen is now the largest grapefruit producer in Texas, and has a wholesale customer base that spreads across North America and Europe, according to Mr. Martin.

A new 150,000-square-foot citrus packinghouse is “state of the art from our offices to the packingline,” he said. “We redesigned the layout in the packinghouse to make the lines more efficient, use less energy and cut down on labor costs. We increased the size of our de-greening rooms and added new sizers with technologically advanced infrared cameras for better color and blemish grading. We increased the number of lanes to increase hourly productivity, and we developed a new split line design to achieve better quality grading between our choice and fancy fruit.”

Rio Queen also installed new pre-sizers and final sizers as well as an automatic bin feeding system and a pair of automatic palletizers. Pre-coolers are strategically placed near the loading docks to cool the fruit before loading and reduce the forklift traffic and other hazards in the packinghouse. The new facility is fully enclosed and air-conditioned.

“This is not only and added benefit to our employees, but it helps to control any outside pollutants or contaminants from getting in the building,” Mr. Martin said.

Rio Queen is well ahead of Produce Traceability Initiative requirements, and is a Primus Platinum member. GS1Databar PLU-UPC stickers on grapefruit and organic onions and GTIN carton labels on boxes and bins can trace product down to the lot.

Rio Queen was an early adopter of laser land leveling to maximize irrigation efficiency, reducing runoff and improving soil drainage. Underground pipelines and drop irrigation make more even more miserly water usage.

The company practices integrated pest management in all its farming operations, relying on beneficial insects and enhanced field scouting to minimize the use of agricultural chemicals. Staff entomologists monitor pest populations and make recommendations specific to each individual grove.

“We are constantly doing all we can to improve our product and our company,” Mr. Martin concluded. “We try to stay on top of innovations and new initiatives. We embrace the latest techniques and technology available, and we take seriously our responsibility to our customers to provide a unique and healthy product. Although we have grown into a large company, we are a family.”