Citrus growers and shippers across the Rio Grande Valley generally cede the organic category to someone else.
Dennis Holbrook, who has more than 500 acres of organic citrus in production in the valley, is generally that someone.
Holbrook, president of South Tex Organics LC, in Mission, has been growing organic grapefruit and oranges in the valley for nearly 30 years, having gotten into organic production in 1984 with about 60 converted acres.
There are heat- and humidity-related challenges to growing organically in the valley, but there are ways to deal with those issues to produce a viable organic crop, Holbrook said.
“It’s a matter of learning, basically, how to farm in conjunction with Mother Nature and how she intends to have things done,” he said.
That requires vigilance against pests and availing oneself of an arsenal of nature-based tools to fight them, Holbrook said.
“We encourage and release beneficial insects and have an opportunity to use bio-control as much as possible,” he said.
Where that isn’t successful in controlling the pests completely, South Texas has other organics-friendly products, such as all-natural fertilizers and compost material, Holbrook said.
“There’s a level we can obtain to get the required nitrogen and phosphorous and potassium we need in order to obtain good tree health and vigor and productivity,” he said.
The methods apparently work: Holbrook said he ships his products to customers across the U.S. and into Canada.
South Tex’s citrus production includes more than 500 acres, plus about 150 of vegetables — predominantly onions, since 1989 — from fields in an area that stretches from Brownsville to west of Mission, Holbrook said.
Holbrook declined to disclose volume figures, but he said it’s comparable to conventional production.
“We’ve enjoyed a continuous growth since we’ve been in the business,” he said.
Twenty percent is a typical annual rate, he said, although it slowed during the fallout of the 2008 recession.
“It’s been picking up again, but consistent growth has been there that entire time,” Holbrook said.
South Tex not only is the largest organic operation in the valley, it’s considered one of the major players, conventional or organic, in the region, said Bret Erickson, president of the Mission-based Texas International Produce Association.
Holbrook deserves credit for that position, Erickson said.
“He’s plugged in on everything that’s going on,” Erickson said.
The organic category is seeing some gains, however modest, in the region, said Ray Prewett, president of the Mission-based Texas Citrus Mutual.
“It’s not dramatic but, certainly, we do have some very successful organic growers, and we’re seeing a little bit more acreage all the time,” Prewett said.
Some grower-shippers say they have dabbled in organics but bowed out; some say their content to leave the category to others in the region.
“Organics is not our play,” said David Krause, chief executive officer of Delano, Calif.-based Paramount Citrus, which bases its Texas operations at the former Rio Queen facility in Mission.
“We know what we’re good at and organics are not something that we’re really adept to or feel as though we need for our product offerings,” Krause said.