SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, TX -- Texans attending the annual Texas Produce Association convention here Aug. 17-19 were in for some pleasant surprises. Temperatures were a reasonable 90-91 degrees, a welcome break from the sweltering 100s the rest of the state has endured for the last month or more. Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples, campaigning for the office of lieutenant governor, stopped by for a visit and to deliver the keynote address. And at least 100 more attendees than were expected turned out for the event.Even better, as the convention broke Friday afternoon Aug. 19 and attendees headed for home, ominous black thunderheads gathered at sea and promised to bring much-needed rain to the southern part of the state. All of Texas has been experiencing severe drought for several months, and that was the topic of much discussion at the convention.
To date, the drought has resulted in $5 billion in cash losses to the Texas -- already topping the $4 billion in damages from the 2006 drought -- and damage to the fresh produce sector has yet to be factored in to those totals.
"These are gloomy numbers, we know they are, and [the drought] is having a truly detrimental impact on the great state of Texas on agriculture production. If it doesn't rain soon it's going to be worse," Commissioner Staples said at the Aug. 18 keynote luncheon. The $5 billion total "doesn't include any losses from fruit and vegetables and row crops. Ninety percent of the state is in extreme or exceptional drought circumstances. We know that as we move forward and as we plan ahead that many of our fall crops are being threatened. Meteorologists have not been my best friend this year; all they give is bad news. The conditions we're facing are expected to continue into September or October and there's a 50-50 chance this cycle will carry over into 2012. But Texans are survivors, Texans are tough -- we've faced difficult conditions in the past and we will do the things that have made us successful in our past, and that's develop partnerships in research and with industry, the types of partnerships that enable us to be competitive in a global economy."
Even with the drought, Texas grower-shippers are in better shape than most of their American competitors. Immigration is a key issue to be sure, but given the state's juxtaposition with Mexico, Texas has fewer labor issues than other states.
An Aug. 18 workshop on immigration and the new E-verify program was sparsely attended, and at one point representatives from the association made the rounds of the convention floor trying to corral additional attendees into the session.
An Aug. 17 workshop on food safety was another story, however. Led by Gale Prince, president of Sage Food Safety Consultants in Cincinnati, OH, and David Gombas, vice president for scientific and technical affairs for United Fresh Produce Association in Washington, DC, the three-hour presentation drew a standing-room-only crowd, as growers-shippers tried to get a handle on new and forthcoming regulations from Capitol Hill.
In fact, some speculated that the increase in attendance -- well over 100 more than last year's 300 -- was due at least in part to the food-safety workshop, which had 75 registrants.
"I think that may have played a part in it," said TPA President John McClung. "There are a lot of people worrying about complying with the new regulations."
Others thought the increased attendance might reflect the dawning of a new era in Texas produce.
"I noticed quite a few younger people in attendance this year, especially at the casino night [and silent auction Aug. 18]," said T.J. Flowers of Lone Star Citrus in Mission, TX.
Still others thought the increase might reflect improving economic conditions for Texas grower-shippers. The state is tops in the nation in economic recovery, with 88 percent of jobs lost before the recession already recovered, according to Mr. Staples. The state's credit rating, recently renewed at AA-plus and "stable" by Standard and Poor, is better than that of Google, IBM or the United States of America.
"That could have something to do with it," added Ray Prewett, head of Texas Citrus Mutual.
Despite their advantages, Texas producers must confront issues of their own that extend far beyond drought, a practically perennial condition.
A recent deal struck between the United States and Mexico seemingly will level the playing field when it comes to shipping, with Mexico agreeing to lift punitive tariffs on inbound traffic in exchange for less regulation of outbound trucks, but Texas producers have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
And while labor is not a major concern, immigration is -- and even more so is the dramatic violence spawned just across the border by drug cartels battling for control of the lucrative narcotics flow into the United States. More than 40,000 people have died in the last five years as the drug wars continue to escalate.
There is much concern along the border that the violence will soon spill across the border into the Rio Grande Valley. There have been sporadic incidents along the border and on the Texas side, and growers and ranchers say that when they encounter unknown intruders on their land, they simply turn and head the other way.
Said Mr. Staples, "Many producers that live and work and raise crops along the Texas-Mexico border have come to me and said, 'Look, we have been literally chased off our property.' Drug traffickers continue to be more bold and brazen in their way of doing business. I've had producers say, 'I've abandoned parts of my property -- if we see somebody we don't know, we head the other direction.' A rancher barely escaped with his life from being shot at and his truck hit, and he escaped by returning fire. In July we had both state and federal law enforcement officials fired upon in the river. They had a press conference and one of the reporters said, 'Well look, you were only fired on a few rounds and you returned 300 rounds, why did you do that?' Because that's all the bullets we had, right? Mexico is an extremely valuable trading partner with Texas and I recognize that. But we are not going to live in a state where citizens are chased off their own property. Your property's getting robbed, your employees are getting shot at. We can do better. The eyes of America are on Texas. Good things are occurring in Texas and we have a powerful story to tell. If we want a Texas our grandparents could be proud of and our children will be proud of, we cannot lose sight of that."