Texas vegetable prices soaring

Farmers in the Rio Grande Valley wish they had planted more onions. The market is hot. In fact, it's “on fire,” said Chris Eddy, Sales Manager of Duda Texas in McAllen.

Duda, packing Mexican onions in March, was selling their fresh, yellow onions for $35 for 50 pound bags. Compare this to $8 last year, and you know why farmers are happy.

Local onions will be on the market “any minute now,” said Eddy, and there's no reason not to be optimistic. The crop is looking good, helped along by a cold spell in February that cut back the insect population.

Elliot Ladides of J & D Produce in Edinburg echoed the sentiment. Absent some unforeseen situation, “we expect onions to be through the roof the whole season.”

In March white storage onions were selling for up to $50 for 50 pound bags. “There's a worldwide shortage of onions,” Ladides said. He says the shortage is a big reason for high prices. California's bad weather, where temperatures stayed in the teens long enough to devastate crops, contributed to the shortage and is a major factor in Texas' high prices.

Unfortunately, onion acreage is down considerably from last year. John McClung, President of the Texas Produce Association, says the Texas commercial growing area, which, besides the Rio Grande Valley, includes Winter Garden and Uvalde, has only 12,500 acres this year compared to 17,500 last year.

“It was just too wet to plant,” in September and October, said McClung. And last year's prices discouraged farmers from committing too many acres to a low price crop. Onions are a little late this year since growers had to hold off until fields dried out. The onion acreage south of the border, primarily Mexico and Peru, also decreased from past years due to heavy rains and disease.

Ladides said cabbage, in the midst of harvest, has also enjoyed a price hike. A smaller crop has improved the market value, and a 50-pound bag in March was selling for $9 to $10, compared to last year's $5 to $6. Historically, around St. Patrick's Day, prices go up with heavy demand. Primarily a Texas winter vegetable, small amounts are harvested year round. USDA figures show Texas growers harvesting approximately 9,000 acres, about 4,000 acres in the Rio Grande Valley.

Celery, too, is greening up, said Duda's Eddy, and he wasn't referring just to the plant. “In February we were getting $35 to $45 per 50-pound carton.” Compare that to last year's $10 to $15.

It's been good weather for celery, with a cool February, just the way celery likes it.

Other vegetable markets also look good: Carrots are double the price of last year and greens, growing in popularity with the consumer, always bring a good price.

Though it looks like vegetable farmers in Texas are going to be making money, McClung cautions producers about becoming over-optimistic. “There's always tomorrow.”

It was only a few years ago producers who expected a money-making onion harvest, instead took heavy losses when onions sat in flooded fields never to be picked up. Another year a freak hailstorm devastated the crop ready for harvest.

Farmers will always be at the mercy of unforeseen factors. Just ask growers in California, where they estimate a billion dollars lost from their winter vegetable crops.

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