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Texas vegetables enduring worst drought in 50 years

by Chip Carter | November 18, 2011

The upcoming season is a good news-bad news scenario for Texas vegetable producers.

The bad news is a record-setting drought that has already cost Lone Star ag producers $5.2 billion continues with no end in sight. The good news is that ground water is available, and a slight drop in production could prop up markets and help provide better returns to grower-shippers.

Workers harvest onions from a field in the Rio Grande Valley. Production will drop this year, as growers have planted 20 percent less acreage than last season. (Photo courtesy Texas A&M Agrilife)

While Texas needs rain like a baby needs a bottle, the drought should not have a severe impact on this season's Tex-Mex winter vegetable crop in most areas. But if rain does not come soon, future production may be jeopardized.

"Certainly the entire state of Texas is in a serious drought," said Ray Prewett, executive vice president of the Texas Vegetable Association in Mission. "We are a little bit better off in the Rio Grande Valley because we've got a pretty good supply in our reservoirs, for the next few months anyway. But the other major big producing area is up in the Winter Garden [southwest of San Antonio]; they've already been affected pretty severely and it's going to be a lot worse if they don't get some rain."

Solid markets should help Texas grower-shippers weather the lack of rain at least through this season.

"I think the prospects up to this point as far as prices, in general they look like they may be OK," Mr. Prewett said. "Hopefully that will be a silver lining in a situation that's pretty tough otherwise."

"Ninety percent of the state is in exceptional or extreme drought. The remarkable thing is the extent and the severity of the drought combined," said Travis Miller, drought specialist with the Texas A&M University Agrilife Extension service, who added that Texas has not seen such severe drought since 1956.

The lack of rainfall is the result of a La Niña weather pattern that has sent the Jet Stream - and the moisture it carries - northward.

"La Niña causes the Jet Stream to move up to the northern U.S. and southern Canada, and when we have La Niña, the north has cooler, wetter weather than normal, and the south has warmer weather and much below normal precipitation," Dr. Miller said. "El Niño is just the opposite. It's not good for agriculture production on either end of the scale."

Worse, climatologists say that the La Niña pattern has settled in and no significant rains are expected before spring. In fact, there will not be notable precipitation "until we get a significant change in the weather pattern and we get tropical moisture," Dr. Miller said. That may not come until fall 2012 and "they're already talking about La Niña coming back in next fall."

"Certainly we've had more serious situations in the mid- to late '90s -- '96 and '98 were both a lot worse in terms of availability of water -- but we absolutely do need some rain," Mr. Prewett said.

Reservoirs in the Rio Grande Valley were filled to overflowing by torrents in 2010, but those "are coming down pretty fast so if we don't get some rain by next summer it's going to a be a different story for us," said Mr. Prewett. "And the forecast is not for all that much rain. The Valley hasn't been talking about water too much, we haven't been terribly concerned. We missed the rainy period with no tropical storms this year. so there's starting to be some concern longer term, but I don't think there' going to be much impact on what's being planted right now."

It is not clear just how much the drought will affect winter vegetable production in Texas. The Winter Garden area will no doubt yield less vegetable tonnage. And one thing that is certainly clear is that there will be fewer onions from Texas this season than last, though that has as much to do with markets as it does with weather.

Two seasons ago, Texas enjoyed a banner market for onions, with prices as high as $40 for a 50-pound bag. As a result, growers chasing similar bounty last year increased plantings by about 20 percent over 2009-10. The resulting bumper crop tanked the market and resulted in prices as low as $7 a bag. Some growers resorted to selling open loads - non-guaranteed shipments that may or may not sell on consignment - and got returns as low as $3.50 a bag.

Following that debacle, Texas onion producers retreated and retrenched. This year, they planted 20 percent less acreage than in 2010-11 and production is expected to return to 2009-10 levels.

Juan Anciso of AgriLife said that Texas growers planted 10,000 acres of onions in the Valley area last year and will have 8,200 to 8,500 acres this season.

"Hopefully that's going to lead to better prices than last year," Mr. Prewett said. "There were a few folks who did decent, but for the most part it was a relatively tough season. Everything we're hearing is acreage is going to be down in the Rio Grande Valley and Winter Garden. Some growers may choose whether they're going to plant onions or maybe corn or some other row crops; the prices on those other crops have been pretty strong, so that's a factor."

While the winter crop is already producing, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, spring vegetable plantings are 22 percent below last year's totals in the four-county Winter Garden. Acreage in Frio, Medina, Uvalde and Zavala counties, which make up most of the Winter Garden area, falls shy of 19,500 acres, compared to more than 24,800 last year. Some growers in the area are skipping a vegetable crop this spring to focus on higher-priced cotton and corn, or later spring crops.

With more water in the Rio Grande Valley, it is possible vegetable production from that area could offset decreases in the Winter Garden.

One benefit to the drought is reduced pressure from pests and diseases. So growers with enough water to make a crop are enjoying average yields despite the drought.

Dr. Anciso said that available water reserves should be enough to see the Valley through 2012 with very little rainfall, but that the Winter Garden growing area, which relies on ground wells, will not fare as well without rainfall before spring.