WESLACO — The Texas citrus harvest extends roughly from Labor Day into May, but this year’s crop could be short due to adverse weather, according to an expert with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Weslaco.
Having retired Aug. 31 after a 38-year career, Dr. Julian Sauls has forecast his final citrus season as an AgriLife Extension citrus specialist.
“For the most part, production from the 2011-2012 harvest will be less than last year, and I attribute that to the freeze we had in February and the drought we’ve had
since,” he said.
Sauls’ data show that citrus production fell sharply after another freeze, the rare Christmas Eve snow of 2004.
“The freeze in February, like the snow of ’04 didn’t affect the trees too much,” he said. “There was no twig damage and little leaf damage, but there was a tremendous drop in the 2005-2006 crop because the snow came two months before bloom.
“With the freeze this year, the trees just didn’t bloom or set fruit as well as they usually do, and so the consensus is that the harvest will be down this year.”
How low will it be?
“Last year, in the 2010-2011 season, we harvested 316,000 tons of citrus,” he said. “That includes grapefruit and oranges, both processed and fresh fruit. This year, we’ll be lucky to get 300,000 tons, if the coffee-shop talk is correct. The freeze did something, enough to affect flowering, fruit set or both.”
The official U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate of the Valley’s 2011-2012 citrus crop will be released in early October, but their estimate is also a “guesstimate,” Sauls said.
“They base their estimate for Texas citrus on the consensus of opinions of several large growers in the area, and they’ll update acreage of citrus based on fly-over imagery. So, depending on who you talk to, the Lower Rio Grande Valley has about 27,000 acres of citrus.”
That’s a far cry from the acreage that was growing here when Sauls first started as a citrus specialist at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco in 1980. He took the job just in time to witness two historic, devastating freezes in the 1980s.
“We had 70,000 acres of citrus before the 1983 freeze,” he said. “After the freeze, we salvaged only 24,000 acres, but not all of that was lost to tree-kill. Some folks just decided to get out of the citrus business.”
The industry was working its way back to production with rehabilitated trees and new plantings when the area was hit by another 100-year tree-killing freeze.
“By 1989, when the second freeze hit, we were back up to 36,000 acres. We got knocked back to 12,000 acres, and we have now pretty well stabilized around 27,000 or 28,000 acres,” Sauls said.
Despite its ups and downs, he predicts the Texas citrus industry will remain stable because “there will always be a market for the high-quality citrus produced here.”
“The quality of Texas red grapefruit will keep us alive,” Sauls said. “There are some areas in Florida that can match the quality of Texas fruit, but they are few and far between. Hopefully, the demand for Texas grapefruit will continue to grow. As it is now, one-third of our crop goes out west, mostly to California, one-third stays here and the other third goes north and east, including Canada.”
Urbanization and water demands will likely pressure growers to make changes, he said.
“Unfortunately, the ideal place to build houses is also the ideal place to plant citrus trees. So the industry could move more toward Willacy County and northeast Hidalgo County, which have excellent soils.”
To conserve water, growers will eventually be forced to abandon flood irrigation for pressurized water systems, he said.
“Microsprayers and drip irrigation are costly, about $1,400 to $1,600 per acre. But if Florida growers can do it, why can’t we? With low-volume systems, trees do well with only 12 to 18 inches of applied water per year because the water is delivered only where it’s needed,” Sauls said.
While Valley citrus growers will eventually have to deal with citrus greening disease, Sauls believes the industry will survive that, too.
“Citrus greening is moving toward us through Mexico,” he said. “It’s going to come. And based on the Florida experience, we’re going to lose some acreage as some growers just throw in the towel. But we have to trust that eventually greening will become a non-issue with a good psyllid control program of the insect vectors and nutritional sprays. Those will help us survive until we can develop some genetically modified trees with resistance.”