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Despite drought, Texas citrus shaping up for a solid season

by Chip Carter | September 30, 2011

No doubt Texas needs rain, but the Rio Grande Valley has not been as dry as the rest of the state, and there is enough water available that even record-setting drought should not have much impact on the state’s citrus season.

“The total crop size is going to be off some,” Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual, told The Produce News Sept. 28. “No one is sure how much, but there’s agreement it’s going to be off some. That’s pretty clear.”

Following a world-wide pattern over the past year, fruit size will be off slightly as well, though a change in weather – cooler nights and a little more rain – could help the crop catch up in a hurry.

“In south Texas we’ve certainly had the drought, but if you look at all the different maps, we’re a little bit better off than the rest of the state,” Mr. Prewett said. “We look for a couple of things to help the fruit size up [such as] cooler weather, particularly cooler nights, and some rain, so we’ve still got some time for the fruit to grow a fair amount. Our season is not fully developed just yet; we will see what happens over the next few months. But it has been tough so far and our fruit size is down some. We are concerned about what the yields and returns are going to be, but we can’t put a stake in the ground and say it’s all over – we’re certainly still hoping we’ll get some rain and cool weather to finish up this crop.”

In the 2010-11 season, Texas produced 5.9 million boxes of grapefruit, up from 5.6 million in 2009-10 and 5.5 million in 2008-09.

An outbreak of sweet orange scab led the state to impose a moratorium on shipping citrus for seven weeks last November and December, at a cost of 275,000 carton equivalents, according to Julian Sauls, citrus specialist at Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension. There has been no sign of citrus scab this year, Mr. Prewett said.

Last year, Texas harvested 316,000 tons of citrus, mostly red grapefruit. This year, according to estimates Dr. Sauls released in early September, that number likely will be 300,000 tons due to drought and a rare hard freeze in February.

About 80 percent of the state is experiencing exceptional drought conditions. While the valley is dry, the region has received more rainfall than the rest of the state, and reservoirs are still full from last year’s torrential summer and fall storms.

More important, the valley has been untouched by still-raging wildfires that have scorched 330,000 acres across the state. From Sept. 22 to Sept. 29, 86 new fires broke out. Since Nov. 15, 2010, firefighters in Texas have responded to 23,519 wildfires that have done more than $5.35 billion in damages. The Texas Forest Service said in late September that the threat of wildfire would continue through the fall and possibly into winter.

“We haven’t had the fires, and irrigation-wise we’ve got up to a year-and-a-half water supply left in our reservoirs, but we certainly don’t want to drain them dry,” Mr. Prewett said. “We had floods along the Rio Grande River last summer. It stopped raining end of September [2010] and that’s kept us from being quite as bad of as the rest of the state. But any rain we’ve had since July [2011] has been spotty at best. It’s been very dry and that does take a bit of toll on the fruit crop.”

There have also been some problems with rust mites – surprisingly so, because those pests are typically less present in dry conditions.

“Rust mite is our number one pest down here. Typically when it’s wet you have more problems, but this has been a tough year on that front as well. It’s not an across-the-board thing, but we’ve certainly had some challenges there. Growers have had to spend a little more money than normal” to control the mites, Mr. Prewett said.

Even with a slightly smaller crop of slightly smaller fruit, Mr. Prewett said crop quality is consistent with Texas’ typical standard.

“The eating quality is going to be good, that doesn’t really vary very much,” he said. “We’re hoping we’ll get some more size. We’ll have maybe a bit more surface blemish because of some of these pest challenges and so forth, but we’re still looking for a good season and are still optimistic that we’ll get the rain we need to make it even better.”