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Rains help 02 citrus, but what happens next?

Sweet rain water! Far superior to irrigation water, it washes the salt out of the soil and brings healthy nourishment to a crop.

Rio Grande Valley farmers have been blessed with a bounty of fall rains. This has been a boon to the citrus fruits, which are bound to grow bigger and sweeter in the next few months.

Since the recent rains, Donald Thompson of Weslaco, Texas, who manages 1,000 acres of citrus trees, is optimistic about this year's crop, which is just beginning to be harvested.

“I know the fruit will start picking up now,” he says. “And we hold hopes for a better market than last year.

“South Texas should have a good piece of the market if we're not forced to compete pricewise with Florida growers who offer an inferior grapefruit.” South Texas, with 30,000 acres in production, grows the dark red citrus that, Texas growers say, is far superior to that grown any place else.

But that's only the good news. “We're probably not going to have as much fruit as in the past,” says Thompson. A farmer can't battle the 100 degree temperatures, the wind and, above all, the lack of water that the Valley has experienced this past summer.

“We've had to stretch our irrigation water out over six to seven weeks instead of three to four that we should be irrigating.”

More bad news is what is in store for the future of the South Texas citrus industry without major rain or major Mexican water payback.

Unlike vegetable crops, citrus takes many years from planting to harvest. If the industry is lost, it won't recover soon and may not recover at all.

“They've got water over there,” says Thompson, referring to Mexico. “But they have blocked the tributaries that are supposed to be feeding into the Rio Grande, and it seems that nothing we can do down here is going to make any difference.”

Mexico is not going to give it up, he says. It has been generally conceded that the Valley is the sacrificial lamb — compromised to keep Mexico friendly to the United States.

“The three to four billion dollars we're losing down here doesn't amount to much,” says Thompson. Except when it comes to the people whose livelihood it takes away.

“The sad thing is that I don't want to pass my farming on to my children,” says Thompson. It's just too chancy. If Mexico has no intentions of living up to the water treaty, paying the U.S. what it owes and continuing to pay the 350,000 acre feet per year it agreed to, then all of the Valley's agriculture will be doomed.”

In the meantime, a farmer like Thompson does what he has to do. He battles the insects, controls the weeds, uses whatever water is available, and hires the pickers. “We're starting now and we ought to be harvesting the citrus through March.”

As far as the 2002 crop goes, it looks like good quality fruit that will be savored throughout the country. Weslaco, Texas, citrus grower Donald Thompson says the citrus crop is looking good this year, but worries about the future.

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