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Texas Produce Association hoping for banner citrus season

by Chip Carter | October 11, 2010
It is early yet, but all indicators are that the just-begun Texas citrus season has the potential to be among the better ones in several years.

Granted, most citrus seasons in Texas are good. But this one may be even better. Texas citrus generates about $150 million in annual revenues, and all production is in the Rio Grande Valley.

"There aren't as many players in the citrus industry as there are in the vegetable industry, but it is a very stable industry in south Texas, and assuming we can get a crop off the trees, we don’t have weather or some other problems that actually prevent harvesting, we generally have a pretty successful season," said John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association. “You always worry about hurricanes and freezes and diseases, but all that taken into consideration, we’re pretty optimistic.”

Plentiful rain and perfect growing conditions have Texas grapefruit and orange trees laden with fruit. Most growers began harvest the last week of September or the first week of October. Following degreening, packing will begin the first two weeks of October and run until May 2011.

“It’s early yet, but every indication is that we will have a good year, absent some catastrophic situation,” Mr. McClung said. “There’s plenty of moisture around, the set is good on the trees, size looks to be nice at this point — better than last year perhaps.”

Citrus acreage in Texas remains unchanged from last year; about 28,000 acres in the southern part of the state are in citrus production. Mr. McClung and colleague Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual, both anticipate yields from this year’s harvest to be equal to or better than last.

“At this point in the season, there’s nothing but optimism; there’s no reason for pessimism,” Mr. McClung said. “We don’t have anything to be pessimistic about. Ray and his guys are working hard on the program to minimize the Asian citrus psyllid. That’s going to require some spraying, but that is a prophylactic. Everybody’s got the psyllid — it’s everywhere — but there is no HLB in Texas.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service confirmed the presence of Elsinoë australis, or sweet orange scab, in Texas and Louisiana in August. It was the first time the fungal pathogen had been detected in the United States, though it is prevalent in South America, Fiji and Samoa. Infected citrus trees were found on residential properties in Harris and Orange counties in Texas, and in Orleans Parish in Louisiana. The pathogen results in scab-like lesions on fruit rinds and sometimes leaves and twigs; the damage is superficial, does not affect quality or taste,and poses no threat to humans, though infected fruit may drop prematurely and the disease may stunt citrus seedlings.

“The early detection of this disease clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of the Citrus Health Response Program,” said Rebecca Bech, deputy administrator for APHIS’ Plant Protection & Quarantine program. “We have taken swift action by issuing emergency action notifications requiring that fruit, leaves, branches and other plant parts remain on these properties to prevent the spread of the disease. We are communicating closely with our partners in Texas and Louisiana as we continue to survey to determine the boundaries of the infected areas.”

Said Mr. McClung, “We are mindful of the increased risk all over the country from foreign pests and diseases. As the industry globalizes and volume of international trade increases, when you have that kind of movement of product, you increase the risk of importing undesirable pests. I was just looking at some trade figures out of Mexico. The volume coming out of Mexico — not just citrus but everything — is just astronomical.”

The Mexican fruit fly is another constant threat to Texas citrus, but control programs have been effective in that battle.

“We had a very mild fruit fly year last year — eight flies the whole year. We’re hoping we repeat, and [we] have some reason for optimism because the government [control] program has expanded,” Mr. McClung said. “We can work around the Mexican fruit fly, but the cost is not insignificant. We’ve been doing it for years, but it’s a pain in the neck, and we’d prefer not to have to.”

Drenching rains throughout the summer did leave some Texas citrus acreage underwater, but the amount is insignificant and the benefit to the overall crop from the additional rainfall more than offsets any loss, Mutual’s Mr. Prewett said. “For a few people, it’s having an impact; fortunately it’s not that widespread. We do have some places where the river’s out of its bank and some citrus that’s flooded, but frankly those groves were already damaged. We’re keeping our fingers crossed we don’t get a lot more rain right away.”

Summed up Mr. McClung, “To be realistic about it, things are looking fine right now. We’re pretty optimistic. There’s no reason to think otherwise at this point.”