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White Christmas still means green for citrus growers

MISSION, Texas – The last thing Texas citrus producers were dreaming of was a White Christmas. With the prospect of prices for Texas citrus climbing higher than they’ve been in 25 years, 3 inches of snow might have cooled producers’ hopes.

“It was scary to see,” says Ron Pritchett who has had citrus orchards west of Mission for more than 20 years and remembers the devastating freezes of 1983 and 1989. But, checking out the trees after the first measurable snow in over 100 years, he found “Only a few leaves got wrinkled, and the fruit itself wasn’t damaged.”

Actually, the snow insulates the fruit. Producers also contend that a little frost sweetens the grapefruit. Had the 28-degree weather continued over a longer period of time, or had there not been cloud cover, the citrus could have been severely damaged.

And, since Texas’s crop is almost totally concentrated in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, it could have been devastating to the state. Instead, the sun came out, the snow melted, and the ruby-red grapefruit took on the color of money.

The ill wind that blew through Florida in the form of hurricanes gave Texas producers the boost they needed. With the demand for Texas citrus high, as of late December, a 40-pound carton of large grapefruit cost about $20 to $24. Even smaller grapefruit were bringing $8 to $14. This is almost twice as high as last year. USDA figures show a 4 percent increase in Texas citrus production this year. Picking should continue into May and June.

Traditionally, Florida ships 1.7 million tons of grapefruit; Texas 212,000 tons; and California, with a different growing season, is third in the nation with 184,000 tons. Before the hurricanes, all signs pointed to it being a profitable year for Florida.

But the weather is a variable producers have to cope with. Florida’s citrus industry took a beating as a result of the four hurricanes that pounded the state. There was heavy crop and field damage, especially in the highly prized Indian River area.

The revised forecast says that the 2004-05 orange crop will be the smallest in 13 years and nearly a third less than last season’s 242 million boxes. The grapefruit forecast is even more pessimistic since it is expected that the crop will be two-third less than last year’s 40.8 million boxes, the smallest since the 1935-36 season.

The size of citrus has also been affected—the fruit being smaller because of hot, dry weather Florida experienced before the hurricanes.

Texas citrus growers know the feeling, since they have taken many a beating in the past. Last year much of the fruit was left on the trees, not worth the cost of picking it. Low prices and devastating freezes have forced many of them to sell off their acreage.

Ron Pritchett, like many other citrus producers in South Texas, has gradually reduced his orchard acreage over the years although he stuck it out through the freezes, replanting many of his groves and waiting the four years for the trees to mature enough to produce.

“At one time I had 150 acres, but I’m down to 10 now.” With the boom in population in South Texas, most of the property he’s sold has become housing developments. But he’s happy the 10 acres he still owns will bring in a good income this year.

Unfortunately, what’s beneficial for one crop can be devastating to another. Vegetable farmers didn’t fare as well as citrus producers. Tomatoes that were already on the vine had to be picked when the forecast came in, and the fragile vegetables such as greens and peppers that were not ready to harvest, went down for the count.

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