(Oct. 24) WESLACO, Texas — After weeks of sporadic rains throughout the lower Rio Grande Valley, onion growers were back in the fields the week of Oct. 20, but shippers say spring 2004 acreage will be lower than last season’s.

The drop won’t be significant, but it’s a sign of how the recent rains have been a mixed blessing in an area that had drought conditions for more than half a dozen years.

McAllen received 10.9 inches in September and 3.72 inches through Oct. 21, according to the National Weather Service office in Brownsville, which logged 15.13 inches in September, compared to Brownsville’s average of 5.47 inches during that month.

The Texas Agricultural Statistics Service, Austin, reported on Oct. 20 that south Texas had received 159% of its average rainfall from July-September, and the lower valley had received 112% of the average rainfall during that time.

One-third of the lower valley had a surplus of topsoil moisture, the statistics service reported. Some rains in mid-September and early October caused flash flooding, with up to 6 inches falling in less than 12 hours.

“We’ve had a lot of rain here locally, and there were some concerns about getting onions planted timely, because there were some delays,” said Ray Prewett, executive vice president of the Texas Vegetable Association, Mission.

Although plantings will be lower than originally anticipated, Prewett said the drop shouldn’t be significant if rains continue to hold off through the second week of November.

As newer varieties replaced the stalwart of the Texas sweet onion industry, the Texas 1015, growers in recent years are planting earlier or later than they would have in the past, depending on which variety they’re growing.

The 1015, named for its ideal planting date of Oct. 15, has spawned newer varieties that extend the planting season as late as Nov. 15.

“We had some dry weather last week,” said Don Ed Holmes, president of The Onion House LLC, on Oct. 22.

“People started in again yesterday, and they’re back out today. I did hear about a few growers that backed out. Some growers have decided it’s too late to get in, but as far as the percentage, I don’t think it will be a whole lot less acreage.”

Holmes said growers can plant spring onions in the valley until Nov. 5 without sacrificing yields or size.

“You don’t want to plant them much after that,” he said. “Through the first week of May is our window, and if you have onions after the 10th of May, it’s too hot and you don’t get the size you need.”

Industry estimates on the size of the Texas spring crop won’t be available until December.

“I think we have at least 30-40% of our acreage in,” John McClung, manager of the South Texas Onion Committee, Mission, said in mid-October.

“That’s not from any kind of statistical sampling, but in talking to a few guys, I’d say we’ve got about 30-40% in.”

McClung said growers will have to switch to different varieties to accommodate the later planting this season, and it may limit supplies in the early and late season.