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Up to 40 commodities hit by Texas freeze

By
Tad Thompson

The damage from what south Texas produce professionals will know as the infamous freeze of St. Valentine’s week started with a hard freeze that began on the night of Feb. 14. The Texas produce industry has deemed the event the “Valentine’s Day massacre for the fruit and vegetable industry of south Texas.” Cold continued off and on through that week, with more freezing temperatures forecast for the night of Feb. 18-19.

Curly Mustard Greens
Curly Mustard Greens

Those who could be reached Feb. 18 unanimously indicated that it would be several days until the Texas industry had a better understanding of the extent of damage.

Tommy Hanka is the operator of Tommy Hanka Farms, a large producer of Asian vegetables and onions. He said his fields “got ripped pretty good, but I think we are going to get back on napa. It’s too early to tell, but I am cautiously optimistic. Our bok choi is fried. Our onions may have been damaged, but we’ll be able to harvest. Yields will be down, and we won’t have the size we want.” It was 21 degrees in Hanka’s fields.

Hanka added that onions when exposed to such cold may become “seeders” — with their stems going to seed. He said if south Texas has a freeze, “that usually occurs in December, not February. I think even the experts don’t know” what will happen.

Dante Galeazzi, the CEO and president of the Texas International Produce Association, said, “We won’t know the full impact of this until next week. But it’s not looking good.” Of the approximately 40 commodities produced in the Rio Grande Valley, most will be negatively impacted to a large degree. He expected the industry would have a better understanding of the extent of damage by Feb. 24, after normal temperatures had returned and growers had the chance to evaluate their vegetables and citrus trees.

“We will wait and see” to evaluate the damage. Galeazzi said onion and cabbage “may survive” for some Texas growers. “But there are very substantial losses for a lot of Texas farmers.”

There is great concern about tree health in the citrus industry, Galeazzi noted. “We’ll wait for the trees to thaw out, then we’ll see what happens.”

Bret Erickson, the senior vice president of business affairs for J&D Produce Inc., said Feb. 18, “We’re still assessing how our crops fared. We’re definitely going to have some losses. Maybe it’s not as bad as we initially thought. Yesterday, some plants looked good in the morning but there was damage to the cell structure. As the day warmed, you could see damage. It will be next week before we know the degree there is damage. But there will be significant damage for all vegetable growers.”

J&D is one of Texas’ largest fresh vegetable growers, with a large packing and shipping facility in Edinburg, TX. The firm grows thousands of acres of vegetables throughout the lower reaches of the Rio Grande Valley.

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Dale Murden, president of Texas Citrus Mutual,
said split limbs will die back at least to that point.

Galeazzi noted on the morning of Feb. 18 that the southern reaches of the Rio Grande Valley were to reach temperatures in the high 20s for the night of Feb. 18 and into Feb. 19. “We can only hope it’s that cold for a couple of hours.”

Erickson said the forecast “is just piling on to what is already a tough situation.”

Tommy Wilkins, director of sales and business development for Grow Farms Texas LLC, said south Texas temperatures were expected to reach 70 by Feb. 20.

The thaw will be revealing for plant damage.

On Feb. 17, Dale Murden, president of Texas Citrus Mutual, cut through a red grapefruit, saying, “You can hardly get through it.” Then, his knife scraped the surface of an exposed half. Tiny clear-solid fragments popped off the red interior. Murden muttered, “Icicles.”

Wilkins said he was particularly concerned for Texas’ citrus industry: “Will the trees survive? Is the fruit OK?”

Wilkins noted that the region’s vegetable growers – especially those with leafy items – are taking very bad losses. But those growers will have the option to replant in time for a harvest this spring. The citrus growers don’t have the option of a fast restart.

Wilkins said hardy cabbage may be at least partially salvaged. The economic decision for harvesting heavily damaged fields will likely swing around prices for cabbage.

On Feb. 18, Tommy Hanka said the tropical plants in his backyard “are gone.”

Similarly, Wilkins said “I lost everything in my courtyard.” This includes two grapefruit trees, and orange, lemon and Cara Cara trees. He also has “a lime tree that may bounce back. All of my nursery plants were lost.”

Galeazzi emphasized that “it’s not just farmers” in Texas who were hurt by the mid-February freeze. “There are a lot of people tied into the industry. Farm workers, and people who work in the packingsheds. There are the people in sales and marketing, plus the seed and chemical companies — and a lot of others.”

Erickson also expressed deep concern for the citizens of his region. Some J&D employees had been without power for four days. He noted that people were not only cold from losing electric service to their homes but suffered from water damage from frozen plumbing. He said there were long lines for gasoline on Feb. 18 and that grocery store shelves were empty. “It’s almost apocalyptic. It’s very strange.”

Galeazzi stressed that the Texas produce industry will generally come to a halt two-and-a-half months earlier than normal. “We’re trying to remain optimistic until we get into the field.” He hopes the evaluation “is better than what our gut is telling us now.”

Galeazzi isn’t sure of the degree to which Texas growers were insured against this February freeze. That varies from one company to the next, but he added, “my guess is there is not a lot.” Insurance policies generally aren’t very comprehensive, and they are extremely expensive.”

Viva Fresh show goes on
Galeazzi said the freeze would have “no impact” on the presentation of TIPA’s widely popular Viva Fresh show, which is to be held in Dallas this year March 26-27. “Dallas is a little more accustomed to harsh winters, so we expect no interruptions to the event.”

Beyond that, Wilkins, who is a Viva Fresh committee member, said “the freeze may dampen the enthusiasm for shippers of certain crops, but we’ve gotta move on. It’s best to move ahead.” In the short run, “If I was a salesman of cilantro and celery, ‘Whoa’! But people here are pretty diversified” and will be moving beyond this historic weather event. 

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