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Florida's loss opens door for Texas citrus
Citrus Gold

Texas citrus farmers just may strike gold in 2004.

The state's citrus industry, which primarily produces grapefruits and oranges in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, has historically lagged behind Florida's, which produces three-quarters of the nation's citrus. But a series of hurricanes that struck the Southeast in September devastated Florida's $9 billion citrus industry. In an October forecast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicted Florida's 2004-05 grapefruit crop will drop 63 percent and its orange crop will be down 27 percent from its 2003-04 season.

Florida's crop losses have sparked interest in Texas citrus from around the world, say growers.

As Texas citrus growers headed into the 2004-05 harvest and marketing season, which runs October through May, some expected the highest demand for their fruit in several years.

"You always feel sorry whenever you see somebody go through a tragedy, but the reality of it is, for us and for our success, it now shoves Texas citrus into a position that it has only dreamed about getting into," said Greg White, general manager of the Edinburg Citrus Association (ECA), a cooperative of more than 100 citrus growers.

Since the fourth in a series of hurricanes hit Florida in September, calls from fruit buyers to the ECA increased 30 percent, White said. Buyers from Europe and Japan, Florida's greatest export market, are calling about Texas citrus, he said.

With such international interest in their fruit, Texas farmers are excited about the upcoming season, White said.

"Their expectations are very high, and rightfully so," he said. "It's been a long time since Texas citrus has been given an opportunity to have this kind of a year."

Don't count chickens
Not everyone is so optimistic. John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, warned it is too early in the season to make predictions. Even with 60 percent of Florida's 800,000 acres of citrus devastated by hurricanes, Florida still produces far more fruit than Texas, which grows citrus on 27,000 acres, he said.

"I think there's no question we are going to have a strong year here, but it's not going to be 'the only game in town' situation that some people seem to think it is," McClung said.

In 2003-04, Texas produced 5.7 million boxes of grapefruit, compared with Florida's 41 million, according to the USDA Agricultural Statistics Board. For the same year, Texas produced 1.6 million boxes of oranges, compared with Florida's 242 million.

In the wake of the 2004 hurricanes, the USDA predicted that in the 2004-05 season, Texas would produce 5.9 million boxes of grapefruit, compared with 15 million for Florida. Texas' orange crop was expected to hit 1.9 million boxes, compared with 176 million in Florida.

The Rio Star
In 2003-04, Texas growers received about $30 million for their oranges and grapefruits. The citrus industry has an estimated $82 million economic impact on the Lower Rio Grande Valley economy, said Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual, a nonprofit trade association in Mission.

The state's citrus industry markets grapefruit under two trademarked categories--Rio Star and Ruby-Sweet--according to TexaSweet Citrus Marketing, the nonprofit marketing agency for the Texas Valley Citrus Committee (TVCC).

Rio Star accounts for 98 percent of the state's grapefruit, while Ruby-Sweet accounts for 2 percent, according to the TVCC.

Texas oranges consist of early- and mid-season varieties, including Marrs, Hamlin and Pineapple oranges, available from October to February, and Navel and Valencia oranges, available from mid-February through May.

Great expectations
The state's citrus season typically lasts through May, but with increased demand, Texas growers said they might run out of fruit sooner than usual.

"This year, everybody is expecting to be out of fruit by December," said White.

Allan Crockett, who grows 200 acres of grapefruit and oranges at Crockett Farms in Harlingen, agreed.

"I think everybody's going to be out of citrus, out of grapefruit anyway, by March," Crockett said.

The combination of higher demand for citrus and diminished supplies from Florida had driven up citrus prices in October.

Richard Walsh, a sales consultant at Healds Valley Farms in Edinburg, said prices were running $16 to $18 a carton for small grapefruit, up from the normal range of $12 to $14 for that time of year. Prices for oranges were running $12 to $16 per carton, up from of $9 to $12. He attributed the increase in grapefruit prices to Florida's troubles and the fact that California had finished its growing season.

"It's going to be a higher price this year--no doubt about it," Walsh said. "Just exactly where the price is going to be, nobody knows."

Texas growers may not necessarily benefit from higher citrus prices, though. Higher fuel, paper and plastic costs have raised shipping and packing costs, White said.

"The effects of price increases on our raw materials are having a more significant impact on our pricing schemes this year than Florida not having any fruit," White said. "Our prices need to be higher to cover these costs."

Opening the door
Texas' citrus industry has two markets--fresh fruit and juice, said Dr. John de Graca, deputy center director with Texas A&M University's Kingsville Citrus Center in Weslaco.

Texas primarily produces fresh fruit. Damaged or blemished fruit that growers are not able to sell is sent to the Texas Citrus Exchange (TCX) to be processed into juice, said Judy Rodriguez, president and CEO of TCX. TCX is the state's sole juice-processing plant.

In October, TCX saw increased demand for Texas juice because of low juice supplies in Florida, Rodriguez said.

Texas shipped about 3 percent of the 7.3 million boxes of citrus it produced in 2003-04 to other countries, according to the TVCC. Germany, Texas' biggest citrus import market, took in 193,000 cartons, and 60,000 cartons went to Japan.

Florida's crop troubles could open new markets for Texas growers, said McClung.

"This may enable us to get into markets where we have not been able to get into before because Florida has had them tied up," he said.

Walsh agreed. "It's going to be some of the best advertising for Texas citrus that we've had."

Once Texas citrus breaks into new export markets, it could find new long-term customers, said Prewett.

"We've always found that when folks get a taste of our fruit, they're going to want some again."

Karen Hudgins