Food For A Texas-Sized Appetite

Texas Citrus

Texas farmers in the rich soils of the lower Rio Grande Valley produce far more vegetables and melons than cattle, as measured in dollars. Fruit farming in this four county area brought in $50 million in 2014, according to Texas International Produce Association statistics, and the greenhouse and floriculture industry was just shy of $100 million.

While cattle and the grains to feed them are still the hallmarks of Texas agriculture, a diversity of vegetables, melons and fruits have become important both for the national market in the winter and the growing number of local consumers looking to Go Texan.

Texas led the nation in grapefruit shipments in 2014, but the state’s bounty of fruits and vegetables is impressive in its diversity. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) State Agriculture Overview, Texas pecans, onions, grapefruit, melons, cabbage, oranges, cucumbers, spinach, peppers, carrots, squash, peaches, sweet corn and sweet potatoes were valued at nearly than $400 million in 2014,” says Richard De Los Santos, marketing coordinator of the Go Texan program at the Texas Department of Agriculture in Austin.

Food For A Texas-Sized Appetite

Texas grapefruit and the Texas 1015 sweet onion top the state’s produce list, but local markets are clamoring for as much diversity as farmers can provide. “The big increase is in items that can be grown locally and sold locally,” says Jay Carnes, owner of Winter Garden Produce, Uvalde, TX. “People are asking us what we can grow, so they can push the local angle. The last four or five years people have been asking if we can grow this or that item.”

Demand for local produce has opened new opportunities for this Rio Grande Valley vegetable grower-shipper. “Probably 75 percent of what we grow is sold in Texas,” says Carnes. “Our biggest two items are cabbage and onions. We’re growing more and more broccoli. We’ve been growing it since the late 1990s. We work hard on what we do to produce a quality item before we move on to try something else.”

Other Texas growers have also noticed increased interest in local produce the past few years. “My main two crops are squash and turnips,” says Bernie Thiel, president of Sunburst Farms, Lubbock, TX. “I sell them to the new Albertson’s and Brookshire in Dallas. Demand is good as long as you’ve got a good quality product. Some of the buyers will say they want Texas grown. We grow around 100 acres of squash, and 150 acres of turnips. I think we got on this local kick around four or five years ago. Buyers want local produce from close to the store, the closer the better.”

Thiel even finds it worth his while to set aside a little land to grow a wide variety of produce for people living in or passing through the neighborhood. “We grow a little bit of everything for a roadside market on 10 or 15 acres,” says Thiel. “People respond very well. It’s just a little market.”

Grapefruit is still the number one produce item in the state, measured by weight, followed by onions, but cabbage and oranges remain big-ticket items. Cucumber and sweet corn production nearly doubled in the past four years, and there are some specialty crop surprises.

“Olive production is increasing steadily in Texas, and farmers are planting more and more trees each year,” says De Los Santos. “According to the Texas Olive Oil Council, Texas olive producers had about 80,800 trees in 2008. In 2015, estimates include approximately 1.5 million olive trees in Texas. During this same time period, the Texas Olive Oil Council reported an increase in olive oil production from 4,500 gallons to an anticipated 13,970 gallons by the end of the harvest in 2015.”

Texas produced $33 million in cabbage, $9 million in chili peppers, $7 million each in carrots and squash, and close to $5 million in tomatoes, to go along with nearly $50 million in watermelons and $120 million in potatoes, according to Bret Erickson, president and CEO of the Texas International Produce Association (TIPA), Mission, TX.

This growing diversity of produce for the local Texas market has spilled over into the cornucopia shipped out of the Lone Star state. “From our perspective the top commodities shipped out of Texas are the items that are the ‘in’ thing for health conscious consumers, like leafy greens,” says Frank Schuster, president of Val Verde Vegetable Co., McAllen, TX.  “Cabbage, collards, kale, beets, Swiss chard, and spinach are the backbone of the new Texas program. These items are hot because of their healthful benefits. Cauliflower and broccoli are gaining too, for the same reason. We also serve the growing Asian market with Daikon and Methileaf (Fenugreek) while cilantro is important in many types of food. Texas also continues its long-standing place with its onion and watermelon programs.”

Trade groups actively campaign for the state’s vegetables, both within Texas and in other important markets around the country. “The Texas Vegetable Association has been conducting annual marketing promotions utilizing specialty crop block grants funded through the Texas Department of Agriculture,” says Erickson. “This year we worked with a marketing firm to develop a television campaign promoting Texas vegetables. This is also tied to website.  You will also see the video there that is running in major Texas television markets.”

The Texas Department of Agriculture has an ambitious Go Texan produce campaign. “Our Go Texan retail program works with Texas retailers to promote Texas produce and other Texas products,” says De Los Santos. “This includes the development of promotional signage, TV commercials and radio spots. Additionally, funding is available for in-store demos and sampling. TDA has hired (rock and roll nutritionist) Jump with Jill and partnered with H-E-B to conduct educational outreach to schools in Austin, San Antonio, Houston and Dallas.”

The state’s agricultural industry is including value added products in its buy local marketing. “In addition to the need to satisfy the demand for local produce, growers and shippers are looking to satisfy the demand for easy handling that consumers crave,” says De Los Santos. “They are focusing on the ease of preparation, convenient packaging, single serving containers and family serving sizes to meet consumer demands. Some commodity groups and producers are partnering with other commodities groups and producers to create unique marketing campaigns. By pairing Texas produce with other products and services, producers are able to leverage funding, reach new markets and stimulate renewed interest through creative uses.”

The Texas-based vegetable association is working to build a regional brand that includes Texas, nearby states, and Mexico. “One of the most important initiatives TIPA has focused on has been the development and execution of the VIVA Fresh Produce Expo,” says Erickson. “We held our first VIVA Fresh Expo earlier in 2015 in Austin and it opened as a huge success. We had nearly 1,000 attendees, 150 buyers, and a sold out show floor. The mission of our VIVA Fresh Produce Expo is to increase the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, with a special emphasis on highlighting produce from Texas, Mexico, and the Southwestern U.S. This region presents such an important corridor in the fresh produce pipeline, we wanted to provide a forum where we could connect suppliers and buyers.”

Center Of The Country

Texas is geographically well situated to occupy an important winter slot shipping fruits and vegetables to most of the country. “We are located in the center of the country in a state with three of the top 10 cities in the nation, so we are close to many markets,” says Schuster. “We have an adequate water supply for the high value vegetable and fruit crops grown here. Other areas might compete with a cheap price, but none can match Texas quality.”

The adequate water supply part may be wishful thinking, as the state is just coming out of a drought of near biblical proportions. “We’ve been in a prolonged drought, and we may change a little bit as we come out of it,” says Carnes. “We’re still not back to 100 percent in terms of how much water we can pump.”

Preliminary indications are the abundant rainfall in 2015 is already having a salutary affect on produce production. “Texas has been in drought for about 10 years, until the last year we had about four times the normal rainfall,” says Jud Flowers, president of Lone Star Citrus, Mission, TX. “The fruit has good size and super quality. It’s a little smaller and smoother than normal.”

The water supply may be at the mercy of nature, but the state’s soils are well suited to its major produce items. “Our Texas produce is unique in that it is grown in the rich alluvial soils of the Rio Grande River delta or the strong sedimentary soils of the Winter Garden, west of San Antonio,” says Schuster. “Texas’ reputation for sweet Red grapefruit and onions is matched by our production of sweet cabbage and the range of brassicas. Our cabbage has a deep color and solid dense heads that are not found in other winter production areas.”

The expanding supply of vegetables and melons from Mexico may compete with Texas farmers, but it also helps create the infrastructure that benefits growers on both sides of the border. “Texas capitalizes on its proximity to Mexico as being the busiest port of entry for many of the fruits and vegetables grown there,” says Schuster. “This broadens the line of products available in one place, complementing the items grown in Texas. Logistically, it is very important to growing and maintaining Texas’ infrastructure.”

Red Is Redder Down Here

While Texas’ vegetables have become more diverse, the state’s signature fruit remains a trademark dark red grapefruit. Florida citrus growers’ struggles with crop disease allowed Texas growers to reach an important benchmark in their grapefruit product. “Last year was the first year I can remember when Texas shipped more grapefruit than Florida,” says Flowers from Lone Star Citrus. “Our market has been the Midwest and West, from Chicago to California. With the problems Florida has been having with diseases, our Eastern boundary has been expanding for both grapefruit and oranges. A darker red grapefruit is about 70 percent of our volume. Demand has been real good.”

Markets and the weather have made the road a little rockier for Texas’ other famed produce item, the sweet onion, which still brought in nearly $50 million in 2014. “We have seen a slow decline in Texas onion acreage over the years, partially the result of water issues, and more a result of turbulent markets,” says Erickson. “Last season turned out to be catastrophic due to a prolonged cold wet winter resulting in serious production issues. Following that difficult season, I expect that we will see something of a rebound for the upcoming onion season. Although the wet winter and spring was challenging for many folks, it really helped our soil moistures and put some water back in the reservoirs, although they are still alarmingly low, relatively speaking.”

Economic times have been steadier, however, for the state’s largest shipper of onion plants. “We are pretty consistent in our shipments,” says Bruce Frasier, president of Dixondale Farms, Carrizo Springs, TX., which produces onion plants. “We saw a big increase in 2009 when the economy went south. We grow about 700 million a year.”

Now most go to garden centers and big box stores. We ship more to growers in Vidalia than Texas.”

While sweet onion growers hope for a rebound, Lone Star is breaking new ground in red grapefruit promotion. “About a year ago we tried to create a brand that would really help to revolutionize the way we all think about grapefruit, and Winter Sweetz is designed to do just that,” says April Flowers, marketing director at Lone Star Citrus. “All of our packaging and branding is aimed at embracing our core repeat customers and attracting new customers to the category.”

This new branding is based on research indicating many consumers could use a little help when it comes to selecting grapefruit. “After about four months of research, we determined that as a whole, the general consumer is really quite confused about how to select grapefruit they will enjoy,” says Flowers. “When considering that grapefruit is categorized by point of origin and color and variety, it really becomes quite a bit to know about one item on your grocery list; furthermore, a red grapefruit in July tastes considerably different than a red grapefruit in January, and while our core customers understand why that is, those who are unfamiliar with the category simply do not.”

The campaign aims to hit the sweet spot that will appeal to both new and longtime grapefruit consumers. “We want to capture those consumers who are approaching the grapefruit category for the first time in years, possibly ever, so we knew that while honoring our loyalists with a sophisticated approach, we had to simplify things for new and curious potential customers,” says Flowers. “Simply put, we had to speak to consumers in a meaningful way; thus, Winter Sweetz was born. The name brings it all down to season and flavor, it’s easy to remember, and our packaging works to build a Texas/winter connection.”