In spite of significant but short-lived rain in late April, an escalating water shortage in Deep South Texas has most farmers comparing this early crop year to 2006 crop when the Lower Rio Grande Valley region suffered an estimated $50 million dollars in crop losses.
In fact, over two years of serious drought and an overdue delivery of water from Mexico that has caused additional water shortages have left both dryland producers and farmers who rely on irrigation wondering if 2013 crop losses will exceed historic levels, perhaps reaching as high as $100 million by the end of the year.
“In 2006, Valley dryland growers lost 75 percent of their cotton acreage, 86 percent of their corn acreage and 43 percent of their grain sorghum acres to drought,” says Dr. Luis Ribera, an AgriLife Extension agricultural economist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Weslaco.
He says back then cotton prices were 55 cents per pound, corn was at $2.35 per bushel and grain sorghum was $4.15 per hundredweight. Today’s market value would drive total losses much higher, possibly doubling losses experienced seven years ago.
While rain showers dumped significant rain on parts of the Valley last week, Brad Cowan, Extension agent for agriculture in Hidalgo County, says the beneficial rains are probably “too little too late.”
“It has been a combination of things working against us this year. Reservoirs to the north are extremely low and we are in our third consecutive year of drought. As a result, irrigation allotments have been drastically limited this year. In some cases, farmers have been told they will get only one irrigation,” he reports.
Recent rains have provided anywhere from an inch to six inches of water across the Valley, which Cowan says may help late planted cotton and sorghum, but it’s too early to tell whether the seed planted will germinate and sprout.
“Some growers remain hopeful they will get a crop to emerge, but even so, more water will be needed to bring the crop to harvest, and prospects for more water don’t look promising,” he added. Also an issue is water Mexico owes to the U.S. through a 1944 treaty.
Limits on water for irrigation
Irrigation officials and local leaders say Mexico is behind in delivering large volumes of water for use in the Valley, a major contributor to the Valley’s water woes.
Joe Barrera, Executive Director of the Rio Grande Regional Water Authority, says the Valley’s water shortage could be solved if Mexico makes good on delivery of water owed to the United States, a development he fears won’t happen in time to save this year’s crops.
“Mexico is once again failing to comply with treaty provisions governing equitable water-sharing in the Rio Grande basin, despite that it has more than sufficient supplies held behind dams in northwestern Mexico. Under terms of a 1944 treaty, Mexico is supposed to release water from its side of the Rio Grande into that waterway for use by the U.S.—specifically, a minimum average of 350,000 acre-feet of water annually for use by South Texas,” Barrera said.
The burden of this deficit falls first on irrigated agriculture. Already, several irrigation districts in the Valley shut off deliveries from the Rio Grande to producers, severely impacting an important economic pillar of the region.
Meanwhile, Cowan says while rain is always welcome, heavy showers over the weekend may delay harvest of onions in the Valley and has caused a temporary suspension of harvesting efforts for Valley citrus crops.
“A couple of onion growers are saying their crop has been damaged and they will suffer losses,” Cowan says.
But Dr. Juan Anciso, AgriLife Extension vegetable specialist in Weslaco, says most white onion growers have completed harvest of a bumper crop and only a few fields await harvest.
“Onions are a dry weather crop,” Anciso reports. “And until Sunday, onions had had perfect weather, and production was going through the roof.”
But he admits if fields don’t dry quickly or if more rain falls in the next few days, remaining onions in the field are at risk.
Last year the onion crop was hit hard by late season rains that saw many fields saturated. Onions are sensitive to wet soil and much of the crop was lost. This year, however, growers were hoping for a good year to recover. Growers planted some 7,300 acres of onions, roughly the same amount as last year, but Anciso says high market prices early in the season began to drop quickly.
“Prices started out strong in early April when the harvest began,” he said. “The national supply of onions was short so the demand was high. But with our high yields this year, actually through-the-roof yields of up to 1,000 bags per acre, the supply eventually exceeded demand and prices started dropping in mid-April.”
Early in the season, depending on the size of onion harvested, yellow onions were fetching $15 to $20 per 50-pound bag, and $20 to $25 for white and red onions. But current prices range from around $8 for yellow and white onions and around $15 for red onions.
Citrus, carrot and cabbage harvest delayed
Citrus growers, on the other hand, are wrapping up harvest and even if more rain should fall they should be able to access groves to complete harvest. But as a result of recent rains, there is heightened concern over an escalating number of Asian citrus psyllids, carriers of Huanglongbing, or citrus greening disease. Wet weather can cause citrus trees to produce new shoots, which is where psyllids lay eggs and reproduce.
Citrus greening is a bacterial disease not harmful to humans but can eventually kill citrus trees. Citrus growers have been on alert since the disease was first discovered in a Valley citrus grove last year. So far, continued control and regular spraying has contained the disease, but a concern remains that the disease could spread if not managed properly.
The disease decimated the Florida citrus industry a few years back and only recently has been detected in California.
Wet fields this week have kept many Valley farmers waiting for dry weather. Also affected by wet conditions are the Valley’s large cabbage crops, fully mature and now ready for harvest.
“You don’t want to get mud on cabbage because they can’t be easily washed,” Says Anciso. “But the Valley’s carrot crop, like citrus, can wait long enough for conditions to dry without suffering significant damage”
But the sword is two-edged—“if it doesn’t rain anymore before harvest is complete.”
While onion, cabbage, citrus and carrot growers could use a little dry weather to finish harvest operations, farmers all across the Valley say they are almost always ready for additional rain showers.
“Our seed corn is off to a good start in the Valley, and if we get more timely rain, we may see the prospect for grain sorghum to look better. As far as cotton goes, dryland cotton is past the stage for much help, but if we get rain and more water for irrigation, we might have some hope for the fewer acres of cotton planted in irrigated fields,” adds Cowan.
He says while last week’s rains fall short of saving the season all together, it at least provided enough water on irrigated fields equal to an additional round of irrigation. Since most farmers were told to expect no more than one irrigation opportunity from surface water this year, the rain provides a positive and welcome impact—and just enough hope that total crop disaster can be avoided.