Texas grower shippers are looking forward to a bountiful season for fruit and vegetable crops.

“So far the season has been phenomenal in terms of growing conditions,” said Dante Galeazzi, president and CEO of the Texas International Produce Association.

A mild winter with good temperatures spurred crop progress for onions, cabbage, kale, greens, grapefruit and oranges, he said.

Shippers were moving into peak onion season in late March and April, and watermelon harvest season wasn’t far behind.

The strong crop outlooks come with a caveat about the labor supply, potentially subject to further disruption by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Texas onion crop looks fantastic, and growers also have a nice watermelon crop on tap that will start in April, said Will Steele, president and CEO for Frontera Produce Ltd., Edinburg, Texas. 

Jimmy Garza, vice president of Bebo Distributing Co. Inc., Pharr, Texas, said Texas onions will have good supply into May, but the uncertain market conditions may create thoughts of exporting to Mexico. While lower acreage and lower volume were expected to set up higher prices this season, the variable of foodservice demand complicates the season, Garza said.

“Pivoting into Mexico could be what saves us,” he said.

Garza said the COVID-19 outbreak created uncertainties in some f.o.b. markets. For example, Chipotle quit buying tomatillos for its restaurants, creating a backup of surplus supply that didn’t find a ready home with retail.

“Distributors and wholesalers all of a sudden turn into mini retailers,” he said, as they sought to find a home for excess product no longer needed by foodservice operators.

In 2019, the USDA said Texas shipments of top commodities were:

  • Cabbage: 86.04 million pounds;
  • Grapefruit: 183.13 million pounds;
  • Onions: 246.2 million pounds;
  • Oranges: 83.13 million pounds; 
  • Seeded watermelons: 22.64 million pounds; and 
  • Seedless watermelons: 598.28 million pounds.

Future growth in Texas produce production may depend on labor, said Tommy Wilkins, director of sales for Donna-based Grow Farms Texas.

“It is difficult to find harvest crews and the H-2A program is a resource, but it is an expensive resource,” Wilkins said. “If we are going to grow Texas production, then foodservice and retail has to support the cost.” 

Part of the issue is that Texas produce is seasonal to some extent, while Mexican producing regions can grow year-round.

“Labor to me is probably the most critical issue to keeping Texas alive in production or growing,” Wilkins said.

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