As nation chills, Texas ships its winter vegetables
Dec 05, 2008 | 519 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
WESLACO — While most of the country’s farms hunker down for a cold, barren winter, three warm-climate states are now busy shipping winter vegetable crops to northern markets and fetching decent prices, according to a Texas AgriLife Extension Service expert.

“As they do every year, the warmer, southern tips of Florida, California and Texas are now supplying the country’s vegetables, and so far, both the crops and the markets look good,” said Dr. Juan Anciso, an AgriLife Extension vegetable specialist in Weslaco.

“We’re now shipping leafy green vegetables and some tomatoes to markets in Dallas, Ft. Worth, St. Louis, Chicago and over to New York and New Jersey. Leafy greens include cilantro, collards and mustard greens,” Anciso said.

Even as growers in the subtropical Rio Grande Valley harvest what they planted in late summer, they continue planting their fast-maturing vegetables into January so as to extend harvests through April.

“By then, when it’s too hot to grow vegetables here, growers in New York, New Jersey, Michigan and other states start planting and harvesting their vegetables, and so the cycle goes,” he said.

“Our planting season is totally opposite from the rest of the country and it all has to do with our proximity to the equator,” said Barbara Storz, an AgriLife Extension horticulturist in Hidalgo County.

“It’s too hot to grow vegetables here in the summer, between June and August,” she said. “The heat is just too much for them. Oppressive heat, especially nighttime temperatures, just don’t allow for efficient respiration so vegetable plants just shut down. They can’t even flower, let alone fruit.”

Summers in South Texas are reserved for crops that thrive in high temperatures, including sorghum, sugarcane and cotton, Storz said.

“For vegetables, the magic number is 70,” she said. “Vegetables love nighttime temperatures below that. With South Texas summers, it’s not unusual to be in the 80s overnight. In the north, vegetables are planted when the soil is just warming up and harvesting is done when it’s warm. But here we plant seeds when the soil is hot at the end of the summer and we harvest when it’s cool. We’re backwards from other growing areas because our subtropical heat is just too tough.”

Onions make up the bulk of the Valley’s vegetable crop, grossing an average of $100 million in farm gate receipts yearly, Anciso said. They are planted in the fall and harvested in the spring, prices permitting.

“Onion market prices were so low last year that some growers didn’t bother to harvest,” Anciso said. “They simply abandoned those fields because at $5 per 50-pound bag, you can’t justify the expense of harvesting, hauling and packing.”

Growers won’t know onion prices until March when that harvest begins, but if vegetables are any indication, they may be up, Anciso said.

“Growers are getting about $10 to $15 per unit of vegetables right now,” he said. “That compares to $7 to $8 last year. I’d call it a fair market.”

Anciso said he thinks that had growers known vegetable prices were going to be up this year, they would have planted more onions.

“I estimate onion acreage will be about 8,000 acres, maybe 7,000. That’s down from 9,500 acres last year in southern Texas,” he said. “We won’t know the exact acreage until the South Texas Onion Committee (a federal marketing order) releases its figures the first week of December.”

Anciso said that while many factors play into a grower’s decision on how much to plant, history plays a major role.

“Wet weather at planting was a factor. Demand is probably a little weaker thanks to a shaky economy, but I think growers pulled back on planting this year because last year was such a bad year for all vegetable prices all across the country,” he said. “Only watermelons did well last season. Everything else was just in the gutter, so the reaction is to cut back in acreage.”

Another list of factors, many yet to be determined, will play a role in what growers get for their onions, including the amount of U.S. storage onions left over from last year and Mexico’s production of onions this year, Anciso said.

“Mexico would need to have a major disaster in their onion production for prices to be great,” Anciso said. “Short of that, I suspect we’ll have a fair market of about $10 to $15 per 50-pound bag. Growers won’t make a killing, but it will be good. They’ll make money.”
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