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But crop's in good shape: Rain interrupts onion harvesting in South Texas

Last year it was hail; this year it's rain. Something always seems to happen during South Texas's onion harvest.

After April's heavy rains, harvesting was set back severely. “We're really behind schedule,” said Cliff Chambers, production manager of Duda Texas that grows over 1000 acres of sweet onions in Texas, mostly in the Rio Grande Valley.

After early April rains dumped 3 to 6 inches on South Texas, “We got another 1 1/4 inches in Starr County and Edinburg areas at Easter. We're just hoping things will dry out so we can get the onions out of the field.”

In spite of the heavy rains that hit South Texas, John McClung, manager of the South Texas Onion Committee and president of the Texas Produce Association remains optimistic. “Over all, our onion crop's in good shape,” he said. “The size is good and so is the quality.”

Not usually problem

He admitted that the rains did slow harvest. And some fields with bagged onions, ready to pick up, were flooded. Those now are sitting in water. But McClung says this isn't usually a problem. “Since a plant takes in moisture through the root system and the roots have been severed from the bagged onions, they're not going to take in water.” But he warned that any time a crop is coming off, it has to be watched for mold, mildew and fungal problems.

Though wet onions have to be dried out, Chambers said, “it's better to be in the bag than in the field,” where the crop is prone to fungal diseases. It's a normal part of farming to face these problems.

Watching the market trends is also a normal part of farming. Last year fewer onions were planted and the prices were up. This year more South Texas farmers planted onions. A figure from the USDA shows producers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley expect to harvest 2.41 million hundredweight, up 6 percent from a year ago. In mid-April, Mexican onions on the market were dwindling and South Texas onions, the first domestic onions, were taking over. These should be harvested in the middle of May.

Big price dip

A few weeks ago onions were going for $20 for a 50-pound bag, and then took a big slip to $5.50. Though prices are not where producers want them to be, they have been inching up recently to about $8, a little more for jumbos.

The area from Laredo to Uvalde, where about 5,000 acres of onions are planted, escaped serious damage from the heavy rain and hail that pelted parts of the state.

“The tops are down on only about 200 acres,” said Jose Pena, Extension economist in Uvalde. “The onions look all right.” The onions in this area won't be ready for harvest until mid-May at the earliest.

The rains increased the disease potential in Valley melons, which won't be harvested until May. “The melon crop looks pretty good, but it's down some,” said McClung. “Central America is producing a lot of melons and the price is so low we can't compete in the market.”

What's bad for one crop can be good for another. Cotton and sorghum producers welcomed the rain for their young crops.

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