A resurgence of interest in producing vegetables and produce and an emerging infrastructure in Texas supporting import of fresh produce from Mexico is giving new life and a new definition to the specialty crop industry in the Lone Star State.
Texas was once a major producer of fresh vegetables and produce, but a move to more commodity crops and issues like water availability and weather concerns helped diminish wide-scale specialty crop production in recent years.
The change is illustrated by two distinct developments. One involves new interest in the development of fruit, vegetable and specialty crop varieties by a new Texas A&M Research and Extension Center in Weslaco and the Texas A&M-Kingsville Citrus Center. The two facilities are hard at work developing next generation varieties that have the potential of making specialty crop production easier, more efficient and profitable than ever before.
The Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) remains an ideal location for vegetable and produce crop production.
The Valley has also emerged in recent years as the preferred hot spot for the introduction of fresh produce from Mexico, over-shadowing popular land ports like Nogales, Arizona.
About 47 percent of U.S. fresh fruit and vegetable imports worth $4.2 billion entered through Texas land ports, which arrived in 172,648 truckloads, most of those through the LRGV. Over the last 6 to 8 years, cold-storage warehouses have cropped up across the Valley, a vital link between the import of fresh Mexican produce and shipping destinations north and east of Texas.
Texas and the Rio Grande Valley once again play an important economic role in the distribution of fresh produce. From 2007-2015, fruit and vegetable imports from Mexico through Texas have grown 107 percent. In 2015 alone, 210,000 truckloads of fresh foods crossed from Mexico to Texas, and that number is expected to grow to as much as 358,000 by 2023, according to analysis by the Texas A&M Center for North American Studies.
These two recent developments, the import of fresh produce from Mexico and new research that is breathing life into specialty crop production in Texas and the Southwest, has been lacking one essential element—awareness of the growing resources of fresh vegetable, fruit and produce available in the Lone Star State.
To address that need, the Texas International Produce Association (TIPA) launched an annual fresh produce exposition a few years back to raise the awareness of these resources. Now in its third year, the Viva Fresh Produce Expo has grown into a major event showcasing Texas' ability to supply the nation to meet their fresh food needs, and to showcase produce and fresh foods raised in and available from both Mexico and the American Southwest.
“With only two years under its belt, Viva Fresh has become a great regional show. The mix of Texas and Mexico growers makes this a true international event,” said H-E-B’s Food Store's Group Vice President, Hugh Topper. “The venues have been great and with the event returning to Austin this year, everyone can experience the hospitality of the Capital of Texas.”
The Third Annual Viva Fresh Produce Expo gets underway April 20-22 at the Austin Convention Center and Hilton Hotel. The “Gateway to the America’s” themed regional event this year features produce grown in Texas, neighboring Southwest States, and Mexico.
“We know we’re doing something right when buyer attendance has nearly doubled from year one to year two, and nearly 100 percent of those retail and foodservice attendees report they are satisfied or very satisfied [and call the Expo] one of the best events they’ve attended,” said Bret Erickson, TIPA President and CEO.
The expo focuses on not only networking, but also education by tackling critical issues through technology and experiential learning. This year's Expo will include the ever-popular virtual field tours that bring the farm directly to the convention center and create a real-time experience for visual engagement and the ability to ask questions of the growers in the field hundreds of miles away.
Expo organizers say attendees this year should expect more big ideas at the Produce Expo. Along with the education component, the expo will continue to focus on the health benefits, style and taste of Southwestern U.S. and Mexico-grown produce, with chef-inspired events and receptions with regional-specific foodie flair.
Dr. David Katz is returning to Austin as keynote speaker. Appearing with him will be his accomplished wife and author, Catherine Katz, PhD. Together they will share their personal and professional experience with nutrition, preventive medicine and healthy eating.
For more information or to register online, visit VivaFreshExpo.com. Registration for retail and foodservice buyers is free and a travel stipend is provided.