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Texas citrus industry thriving despite lingering drought, competition and ever-present greening threat

It is amazing that Texas growers can produce premium citrus in the heart of the second-worst drought in state history, but this season's crop promises to be on-target in terms of quality and volume as the season ramps up in October.

"When you look at this crop that's hanging on the trees right now you would never know we were in a drought," said Trent Bishop of Lone Star Growers in Mission, TX. "Even though we still find ourselves in the midst of a historical drought, we have had some timely and widespread rains that have been just enough to cover most all of the acreage over the last 90 days -- TX-Citrus-2Texas is famous as the birthplace of the red grapefruit. This year's crop is in excellent shape despite an ongoing drought. (Photo courtesy of USDA/ARS)some areas have actually received several rains. That is always welcome in the heat of the South Texas summer."

But Texas citrus growers do not rely on rain alone to make a crop, of course. The state's citrus belt runs across the Rio Grande Valley in the southernmost part of Texas, east to west along the Mexican border. The valley is irrigated by water from two reservoirs on the Rio Grande River. Water allotments are prized - and sometimes traded -- by growers. Any rain at all is like an unexpected bonus in a paycheck.

"When we get some of these timely rains we can save some of those irrigations that we would otherwise pull out of those reservoirs for later use. Any time you can get a bonus from Mother Nature, it's a good thing," Bishop said. "Water is a bigger issue in Texas than most people realize. On everything that's company-owned, we have installed micro-jet irrigation. This is just one way that we are doing our part to make sure we spread our water allocations as far as they can go. We have a very clear-cut water plan in place to make sure that we're planning for the future as far out as we can. We realize that in order to have next year's crop, we have to have water for next year's crop. As such, there are already plans in place to make sure not only that we have a crop this year but that we've got a crop next year as well."

Water is not the only potential threat to Texas citrus. In January 2012, HLB -- citrus greening disease -- was discovered in a couple of trees in a single Rio Grande Valley grove. Coordinated spraying for the Asian citrus psyllid that carries the disease -- a practice that has helped Florida citrus growers battle the pest to a temporary draw -- has since kept it at bay. There have been no new incidents reported since the original finding -- remarkable given the fact that, unchecked, HLB can destroy a grove in two years.

The U.S. government recently shuttered two facilities -- one on each side of the border -- that for years served as early detection centers for pests ranging from Mexican fruit flies to HLB-carrying psyllids. Now Texas relies on the Texas A&M University Kingsville Citrus Center as a first line of defense against invading pests.

"These things are great hitchhikers," said Ray Prewett, head of Texas Citrus Mutual, which works closely with the center. "We worry about an infection coming in from Mexico, Louisiana, Florida."

"Early detection is very important. If a threat comes here, we need to detect it before it can become established," said Madhu Kunta, head of the center's plant pathology department. "We try to test as many samples as possible, both the vectors and the plants."

While traps have caught multiple HLB-carrying psyllids across the Rio Grande Valley, the only known infected trees were found in January 2012 near San Juan, TX. A five-mile quarantine radius was immediately established and growers say the fact that there have been no further outbreaks is encouraging.

"The fact that we are inspecting more than ever and have not had another occurrence in a year and a half should be a testament to the programs that we have in place. I am very grateful for the professionals within the Texas A&M University system and our industry in general who are out there daily monitoring and educating the public. Their results are speaking for themselves," Bishop said. "That's not to say we're in the clear by any means, but the fact that they have been able to fend it off and combat it like they have is a true testament to their hard work and expertise."

The Texas citrus industry is solid enough that it has seen an influx of new partnerships from outside the state over the past three seasons. Longtime Lone Star State growers like Healds Valley and Rio Queen have been parlayed into Delano, CA-based Paramount Citrus. Other companies like International Citrus and Produce in Burlingame, CA, are also in the Texas citrus game, purveying Valencia and Marrs oranges and that famous Texas red grapefruit.

"As long as Texas maintains our business-friendly climate, investors will continue to seek opportunity here and refuge from the destructive tax and regulatory policies of other states, like California," state Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples told The Produce News. "As this reality affects Texas agriculture, as we've seen in our citrus industry, we must ensure transparency in the market continues to be the standard. We must be prepared to both welcome the advantages of today's global economy, while also protecting our domestic growers."