Favorable weather means good year for Texas citrus

Everyone looks forward to the South Texas citrus harvest. “And this year the grapefruit are sweet and plentiful,” says Jeannie Smith, Office Manager for Obst Family Farms in Alamo, Texas, where they annually pick more than 100 acres of citrus.

“We started picking in September and we'll keep it up until at least March,” says Smith. They credit timely rains in South Texas for an early harvest and fruit that are plump, juicy and sweet.

The de-greening process the Obsts often use to color their fruit, especially on early season oranges, is not necessary this year since nature has done the job.

Prices are a little lower than last year. In mid-December, grapefruit was going for 13 cents to 15 cents per pound and oranges for 15 cents.

Development has reduced the Rio Grande Valley's citrus-producing acreage to about 40 percent of 1980. Each year a few more orchards are destroyed. Even with less acreage tonnage this year should still be about the same as 2006 because of excellent growing conditions.

Texas is the second largest state in grapefruit production and third state in oranges, claiming about 28,295 acres in commercial citrus production in the Rio Grande Valley. The citrus industry, a vital part of the agricultural economy of the valley, should bring in $150 to $200 million this year — more than $50 million to growers. The jobless rate has gone down, too, with 1,000 agricultural workers hired early in the season.

Because of the impact on the valley's economy, citrus growers and state officials take great precautions in keeping Texas citrus healthy. This year the industry is concerned with “greening disease,” which produces bitter and misshapen fruit and can cause young plants to die. It is a bacterial disease spread by psyllids, a type of plant lice.

To prevent this destructive disease that has already hit parts of Florida, a state and federal quarantine was issued for citrus plants in the Rio Grande Valley and 29 counties. The quarantine prohibits shipping plants unless they have been sprayed for Asian citrus psyllids. This is strictly a preventive measure. Texas citrus is healthy and free of disease. This quarantine means to keep it that way.

The Obsts, growing citrus for nearly 40 years, have gone through hard times, including a fruit quarantine in 2003. They have weathered the drought and have replanted after numerous freezes. They haven't sold out to developers. Although they ship much of their citrus, the Obst fruit and vegetable stand is a well-known landmark in Alamo, attracting hundreds of locals and winter Texans as soon as it opens in the fall.

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