In-state demand gobbles up a lot of Texas fruits and vegetables, but other shoppers want them, too.
Originally printed in the April 2022 issue of Produce Business.
Texas is a dynamic produce-growing area backed by energetic promotions and even greater potential. In fact, the growth of the agricultural sector in Texas has led to more markets — both domestic and international — drawing on the state for produce.
“Texas is very fortunate to have the space, regions and climate to grow a wide variety of produce, and to be a top produce producer in the nation,” says Lindsay Baerwald, director for marketing and outreach at the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA).
She points out that Texas is first in the nation in the production of watermelons; second in carrots and pumpkins; third in grapefruit, oranges, melons, peppers, and spinach; fourth in cabbage; fifth in grapes; sixth in cucumbers; seventh in mushrooms and onions; eighth in sunflowers; and 10th in fruits and nuts.
“More than 600 different specialty crops are grown here in Texas, and we’re a major producer of more than 60 of them.” That’s because of the differing temperatures and climates across Texas that yield a variety of growing regions.
“We can produce a variety of fruits, vegetables and specialty crops, those that are not considered ‘commodity’ crops like wheat, corn, soybeans, etc.,” Baerwald explains. “This means that something is ‘in season’ in Texas every day of the year. So whether we are providing produce that goes to consumers in the Lone Star State, across the U.S. or around the world, it’s always the perfect time for Texas produce.”
The major markets for Texas produce have remained stable in part because the in-state demand hasn’t pushed the produce sector to aggressively seek new geographies.
“Even during the pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau had Texas growing by 850 people per day,” says Dante Galeazzi, president and chief executive of the Texas International Produce Association (TIPA). “That population has to be fed and, with transportation costs still elevated, the fewer food-miles means better affordability for consumers.”
“I think the companies in the Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) space truly understand that, which is why we’re seeing so much production come to Texas, especially in areas around Dallas, Houston and Austin, our population epicenters.”
There has been “tremendous growth” in the CEA space in Texas, Galeazzi adds. “I expect, in the not too distant future, we’re going to see a lot of grocery stores carrying bagged salads and green mixes proudly displaying Produce of the Lone Star State alongside our recognizable GO TEXAN logo.”
Galeazzi says the state continues to build on its reputation for growing its traditional produce stars. “The Texas Rio Star grapefruit, Texas 1015 sweet onions and, of course, Texas watermelons are all still major crops in the state, and we don’t see that changing anytime soon. That said, our Texas fresh produce farmers continue to evolve, even in the dawn of the post-COVID era. We are seeing new commodities reach larger commercial quantities to match the ever-changing demands of U.S. consumers. Items like methi leaf and leeks are emerging as popular foodservice commodities, and we have more bell peppers and chili peppers being grown in the state now than even five years ago.”
In fact, there are several ongoing initiatives in Texas to support the expansion of recently introduced specialty items. Some are relatively small specialty crop production, Baerwald says, but there is a push to establish more local acreage, such as a project in east Texas that seeks to establish Golden Kiwifruit production in Texas. Another focuses on hops production, and an ongoing project is the expansion of strawberry production, not only in the traditional region around Poteet, TX, but also in the Texas Panhandle, Lubbock area, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Another growing industry is olives, and honey, both actively promoted by the TDA Specialty Crop Program, she adds.
Beyond the state borders, Texas-grown produce has primarily been aimed at the Southwest, Midwest and Northeast, however, Texas growers have also sought out international opportunities.
“One big area of growth for Texas produce has been emerging countries and neighbors that don’t have the same seasonality we do,” says Baerwald. “For example, a lot of Texas produce can go north to Canada where they have shorter growing seasons than we do. We also are looking at opportunities in countries that don’t have the same ability as Texas to grow food, like those in the Middle East.”
FIGHTING FOR RESPECT
Oranges are among those Texas crops that don’t get the recognition they deserve. California and Florida lead U.S. orange production, but Texas does have a significant presence in the market. The highest recent year of production for Texas oranges was during the 2017/18 marketing year where 36.9 TMT of oranges were produced, with nearly 200 metric tons exported to Canada.
Texas peanut growers are also fighting for larger market shares. Shelly Nutt, executive director with the Texas Peanut Producers Board, McKinney, TX, says, unlike other growing regions of the country, the crop in the state can’t thrive because of limited naturally occurring rainfall and, so, is under irrigation.
“Our peanuts are grown under irrigation, which gives us a consistently high quality crop and differentiates it from the rest of the country,” she says. “Texas is unique, too, as the only growing area to grow all four types of peanuts: Runner, Virginia, Spanish and Valencia and organic peanuts.”
She says Texas has all four varieties growing organically, as it has a unique advantage due to the rarity of fungal disease in the state.
Texas is the fourth largest peanut growing area behind Georgia, Florida and Alabama, with 175,000 to 200,000 acres under cultivation each year, and the sector is growing, Nutt says.
A new shelling facility will give the Texas peanuts business additional capacity. At the same time, H-E-B is adding roasting machines featuring Texas peanuts at its Central Market format.
LONE STAR PROUD
The Texas Department of Agriculture is a main promoter of Texas produce, and that includes placing an emphasis on farming as part of the state’s economy.
With its GO TEXAN promotional and merchandising program, TDA focuses on “identifying and supporting Texas-based businesses and connecting them with customers across the Lone Star State and around the world,” Baerwald says.
Retailers feature Texas produce generously close to home. For example, United Supermarkets, Lubbock, TX, supports Texas growers as part of merchandising and marketing messaging, in multiple ways, says produce business director Joseph Bunting.
“We have local grower signs in our departments so that our guests can see who grew their local produce,” he says. “We also have a local Expo each year to highlight the local products that we offer. This event has been well received by our guests and they enjoy seeing the local items in our stores.”
The effort to promote Texas produce and the growers operating in the state extends to marketing, but still is linked back to merchandising.
“We also call out local items in our ads with a Texas Grown logo to help guests know what items are locally grown,” he says. “Locally grown items will be marked with signage in our department.”
Tommy Melton, director of produce operations, GE Foodland, Dallas, TX, oversees a continual rotation of Texas and local produce promotions to excite shopper interest.
“We do it all the time when the product’s available,” he says. “Right now, we have sweet potatoes from Texas. We don’t quite have Texas watermelon yet but we keep going. A lot of the time, we have greens or cabbages from Texas promoted, as we do oranges and Ruby Red grapefruit.”
He adds that GE Foodland features prominent local and Texas-wide merchandising whenever it can. “It works well here,” he says.
Brookshire Brothers supermarkets spotlighted close-to-home ties by recently featuring two local peach suppliers on its websites, including Cooper Farms, a second generation family farm in Fairfield, TX, and Lightsey Farms, of Mexia, TX. When shoppers buy local, Brookshire Bros. reminds customers, they support family farmers such as the Lightseys and Johnsons. Brookshire Bros. promotes the Texas Blueberry Festival, too.
In the late winter, H-E-B ran a TexasFest Made for Texas Tastes promotion that featured its own guacamole, pico de gallo and salsa, packed and wrapped fajita vegetables and veggie skewers, and chopped cilantro and diced jalapeno, in addition to fresh large avocado and sleeves of sunrise peppers.
H-E-B also participates in Viva Fresh, the Texas International Produce Association trade show set for April 21-23.
“This focus on health and wellness really sets Viva Fresh apart from other regional trade shows,” says Kyle Stevens, vice president of produce for H-E-B, San Antonio, TX. “Each year the show brings a new, vibrant energy to the industry and highlights the growing importance of Texas and Mexico in fresh produce.”
Galeazzi says Texas produce promoters use a variety of platforms. “At the individual company level, we have many companies focusing on Texas branding,” Galeazzi says. “We just wrapped up Texas citrus, where Lone Star Citrus uses its Winter Sweetz branding, while Wonderful Citrus has several Texas-themed citrus bags they deploy. Rio Fresh Inc. of San Juan, and Little Bear Produce of Edinburg have long used the Texas-flag as part of their label on cartons, bags and even stickers to show Texas pride for their produce. Frontera Produce of Edinburg and Val Verde Vegetable have a great video series and robust social media pages, educating consumers about how their produce is grown and taken to market.”
Texas produce operators vary widely in their business specialities and operations. Val Verde Vegetable Co., McAllen, TX, sources product from the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, the Winter Garden of Texas, west Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, in addition to having presence in Mexico where the company has relationships with growers from almost every state. According to the company, principal commodities include cabbage, mixed greens, limes, melons and onions.
With a focus on coconut, pineapple and citrus such as lemon, Mexican, or key, lime, and now Persian lime, Fresco Produce, Edinburg, TX, is the U.S. arm of Frescar, a Mexican company, located in Tecoman, Colima.
Of course, NatureSweet, San Antonio, TX, is a well-known national branded produce player with tomatoes its best-known focal point. The company backs up its product line with multiple promotions, including a downloadable recipe book focused on healthy and flavorful summer salad and grilling recipes from across America.
On top of that, Galeazzi adds, TIPA is constantly working on promotional opportunities, like the Viva Fresh Produce Expo, and more recently expanding its presence overseas in Dubai, UAE at the GulFood event, and at the Fruit Logistica event in Berlin, Germany, “to promote Texas-grown produce to the world.”
Bouncing Back From The Big Freeze
Texas produce is having a good year, but it comes after a bad one.
“Many in the industry will recall the Valentine’s Freeze of 2021,” says Dante Galeazzi, chief executive and president of Texas International Produce Association (TIPA). “A ‘30-year freeze,’ so named because it happens once every 30-plus years, which not only shutdown the entire state of Texas, devastated our fresh produce industry to the tune of nearly $700 million in losses.”
However, Galeazzi says the Texas produce industry’s rebound has begun.
“Our Texas citrus crop did great quality- and size-wise this year, but because of last year’s freeze, we only had roughly 30% of the normal 18 million cases we see move through the Rio Grande Valley,” he says.” Our growers will spend this summer cleaning up groves, replanting lost trees and getting ready for next season in which we expect to be closer to 70% of a typical season.”
He adds that other Texas crops entered the spring in top form.
“We had a cooler-than-usual February this year, which slowed some crops down, but by March, we were already back in the 80s, which is where we like the weather to be as we wrap up citrus and move into the last plantings of greens in the Valley.”
“We’re also looking forward to a great peach season this summer as those cooler winter days followed by warm spring will help produce sweeter fruit.”