Fresh From the Rio Grande Valley

The Rio Grande Valley currently produces around 40 different items every year. The largest planted crops are grapefruit, with 20,000 acres; watermelons, 10,000 acres; oranges, 8,000 acres; and an additional 7,000 acres and 4,000 acres of onions and cabbage, respectively.

With imports flowing, the region is also home to an important production area.

Originally printed in the March 2024 issue of Produce Business.

Located in the southernmost tip of Texas and covering 43,000 square miles along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Rio Grande Valley’s four counties of Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy contain everything from flatlands and plains to the fast-growing cities McAllen and Brownsville, and the resort destination of South Padre Island.

The region, which is so often associated with imports flowing through its ports of entry, is also home to an important production area, and one which is worth taking note.

According to Dante Galeazzi, president and chief executive of the Texas International Produce Association (TIPA), the Rio Grande Valley currently produces around 40 different items every year, covering everything from limes to methileaf. However, the largest planted crops are grapefruit, with 20,000 acres; watermelons, 10,000 acres; oranges, 8,000 acres; and an additional 7,000 acres and 4,000 acres of onions and cabbage, respectively.

Beginning in October with grapefruit and running through May with watermelons, the region serves produce markets across the U.S. and Canada, as well as global destinations, including Asia and Europe for grapefruit.

“Many of Rio Grande Valley’s crops like melons, carrots, and greens are often found throughout the Canadian marketplace during the Texas season,” says Galeazzi. “And we even have shipments of items like onions going south into Mexico.”

By using the Go Texan logo, participating partners in the Rio Grande Valley can showcase that their products are produced in Texas.

Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller singles out ruby red grapefruit and 1015 onions as two of the most popular commodities presently grown in the region, although he emphasizes that South Texas’ unique climate has opened the door to a range of other commodities.

“Harvest in the Rio Grande Valley region differs from year to year based on weather conditions,” says Miller. “Overall, agricultural production has increased as farmers in the area continue to improve upon their production methods.”


Based in Mission, TX, Lone Star Citrus Growers represents the last independent, family-owned and -operated Texas citrus packing house. Lone Star grows and ships Rio Red grapefruit, Marr’s early sweet oranges, navels, pineapples and Valencia oranges between October and late March-April each year. Grapefruit composes 75% of the company’s crop and oranges around 25%.

According to Lone Star’s marketing director, April Flowers, demand for the grower’s sole variety of grapefruit — Rio Red — has been “strong to steady” throughout the entire season, although bagged grapefruit sales are up from 2022-23. On the oranges side, Flowers says the company experienced sales growth, thanks to increased demand for small fruit for in-store juicing operations in grocery retail stores.

Lone Star, which deals with every major national retailer and ships to 39 states and occasionally into Canada, was hit by a generational freeze in 2021, and its recovery was hampered by a subsequent drought, but Flowers is optimistic.

“We are producing at about 75% of a normal crop year, and we continue to slowly increase production each year, but trees take time to recover,” she admits. “That said, we have many new plantings that will come into production beginning next year, so we will be entering a growth phase over the next several years, which we are certainly looking forward to.”

Flower’s assessment is echoed by TIPA’s Galeazzi. Acreage, he says, was on the uptick across the valley over recent years, but two big challenges slowed the growth.

One was the “Valentine Freeze” of 2021, which Galeazzi describes as “absolutely devastating.”

“It resulted in nearly $880 million in losses, and many of the old citrus trees didn’t make it,” he says.

However, during 2022 and 2023, the average in the Rio Grande Valley came back strong, with citrus growers planting hundreds of acres of new trees.

Unfortunately, 2024 to date has been affected by the hangover from an uncharacteristically long summer and limited supplies of water, and plantings have been reduced across the valley.

“This was disappointing, because the farmers in the Rio Grande Valley saw incredible demand for just about everything that came out of the ground last season, and we’re expecting similarly high demand throughout this season as well,” says Galeazzi.

There is a better outlook for smaller, niche foodservice items, which are experiencing big year-over-year growth, according to TIPA. “Items like methileaf and daikon, for example, have seen bigger plantings. Overall acreage is still small, but when you go from two to 20 acres on an herb, that’s a big change,” adds Galeazzi.

Based in Edinburg, TX, grower, shipper and packer Frontera Produce specializes in both Rio Grande Valley produce and imports from south of the border.

Frontera Chief Executive and President Will Steele says locally produced onions and imported chiles (currently, he says the category is experiencing annual double-digit growth) account for much of the focus for the business.


While the Rio Grande Valley has its undoubted strengths, growers in the region face considerable in-country competition from counterparts in California and Florida across many key commodities.

In the opinion of the Texas Agriculture Commissioner, the state is competitive against other high-level production areas, thanks to its high levels of quality and seasonality.

Although limited in production volume, Miller says Texas citrus is famed for its overall quality and sweetness, while Rio Grande growers of products such as onions, cabbage and spinach can “utilize an extended growing season to stay in production when other areas simply run out of growing time.”

Galeazzi says California is rarely an issue for Texas since its seasons run opposite to the Rio Grande Valley, but the region does compete with Florida on items like cabbage and citrus. Despite this, he argues there are notable differences.

“Both regions have their distinctions — for example, Texas grapefruit is very sweet — did you know the red grapefruit originated in Texas? — and Texas cabbage is more dense,” says Galeazzi. “This is an advantage for retailers selling heads of cabbage by the pound or for foodservice looking for a stronger leaf in items like wraps.”

Similarly, Lone Star’s Flowers is philosophical about the competition. “California has an opposite season, so around the time they are wrapping up, we are entering into our harvest season,” she says.

“Florida has the freight advantage up the East Coast for much of their volume, and we generally ship north and west.”

Frontera’s Steele has a more straightforward opinion. “When we have the same commodities going at the same time, we compete, obviously,” he says. “We’re not necessarily competing for the same customer, but when Mother Nature strikes a particular region, the other regions reap the benefit of the others’ misery.”


Imports also play an important role in the Rio Grande Valley’s produce industry, and it is here that companies, such as Edinburg, TX-based Fresco Produce, have found a niche.

Focused on Persian limes, key limes and coconuts year-round, as well as Valencia oranges and Mexican lemons when in season, Fresco has recently expanded its production across Mexico to cater for 12-month demand, according to sales manager Mayra Romero.

“We ship to all the U.S., and before COVID, we shipped to Canada as well, but during COVID, we reduced the amount of commodities and stopped exporting to Canada,” she says.

Although the pandemic curtailed Fresco’s exports to Canada, it also led to a boost in citrus sales, especially lime, thanks to greater consumer interest in healthy products.

“About eight to 10 years ago, a really high volume of Persian limes crossing from Mexico through McAllen would be 400 truckloads, now 400 truckloads are a regular week,” Romero continues.

Based in neighboring McAllen, TX, Amore Produce is focused on the transport and distribution of its own production drawn from fields across Mexico, including tomatoes (Roma and round), chiles (jalapeños, serranos and poblanos), carrots, cucumber, limes and avocados. The company is also a major onion producer and importer, specializing in white, yellow and purple varieties.

According to owner Jaime Moreno, Amore has significantly increased its presence in the U.S. and Canada, which he believes has been driven by its emphasis on using technology to produce high yields and ensure profitability, while at the same time protecting the surrounding environment.

“Our high levels of efficiency and use of pre-cooling systems have enabled us to better preserve shelf life and freshness, which has helped us reach markets far beyond the Rio Grande Valley,” says Moreno.

Something of a pioneer in the Rio Grande Valley, Pharr, TX-based Villita was one of the first U.S. companies to import Mexican avocados following the 1997 lifting of an 83-year-old ban on the fruit entering the country from south of the border. The company has grown steadily in the years since and opened its own, dedicated packing facility in Jalisco, Mexico, in 2023 to take advantage of recent U.S. export authorization for the Mexican state.

Villita also stands tall in the Rio Grande Valley for its work in two other key areas: sustainability and exports. In January 2024, the company launched 100% plastic-free bags for organic avocados and further ahead it plans to roll out the packaging to conventional fruit.

“We knew we were going to be a disruptor in the bag category with our plastic-free packaging, and we invite the industry to go plastic-free,” says Villita’s Executive Vice President Rob Ybarra.

“It’s the future. The landfills are maxed out, and a lot of plastic is getting into our water and food supplies, so we’re helping the environment, one avocado bag at a time.”

In terms of exports, Villita is also forging a path as an innovator. Besides being well established in Canada — and across the U.S. — Villita is also currently testing avocados with a major retailer in Costa Rica and is poised to begin shipping to China for the first time in July.


Sustainability is a subject that has become increasingly significant, particularly in produce packaging.
According to Miller from the Texas Department of Agriculture, embracing more sustainable forms of packaging has emerged as a recent trend in the Rio Grande Valley.

Cilantro is produced in the Rio Grande Valley from October until March.

“As with most of the produce industry, consumers are looking more and more for further processed products and packaging that is recyclable,” he says. “This has led many businesses in the Rio Grande Valley to find ways to add processing steps to their business models and source recyclable and reusable packaging materials.”

This echoes the assessment of Victoria Lopez, marketing and brand manager for Edinburg, TX-based Fox Packaging, who says sustainability is now one of the key topics raised by customers. “They are asking, ‘Is it responsible packaging? Is it recyclable? What materials does it use?’” she says.

“When sustainability first started impacting fresh produce, we revised all of our base materials,” Lopez says. “We updated any specifications that our machines required and, from there, we have been working closely with our film suppliers, making sure the film is fully recyclable.”

Some of Fox’s key packaging options include Fox Fresh Mesh, which eliminates the skin-damaging indentations that many woven mesh products cause, while also letting moisture and air pass more easily through the bag to help extend shelf life.

For potatoes, the company offers the Fox Fresh Mesh Combo ultra film bag: a fusion of poly and mesh, which delivers both breathability and reduces greening by 33%, according to Lopez. For smaller products, such as limes, bell peppers and tomatoes, Fox supplies the Stand-Up Poly and the Stand-Up Combo, both with zip closures and large areas for graphics.

For Amore’s Moreno, the significance of good produce packaging comes down to being able to communicate efficiently and effectively between the brand and the consumer. In this sense, he says produce packaging has gone from being a simple container to a means of transmitting your company image and brand to shoppers.

Rio Grande Okra Sales, a McAllen, TX, business that produces — and imports — okra from Mexico between November and mid-May each year has experienced sales growth, thanks to a move toward specialty packaging.

According to General Manager Richard Zepeda, the company has moved away from using wooden materials to shipping in plastic containers, driven by retail demand for smaller pack sizes.


So how do growers in the Rio Grande Valley better promote their products to get them noticed across all markets? One key driver is the Texas Department of Agriculture’s “Go Texan” program, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.

According to Commissioner Miller, Go Texan supports growers and offers them the opportunity to show their produce as “true Texas products.”

Another benefit of the program is the Go Texan Wholesale/Retail Portal, which showcases affiliated companies that are aiming to sell their products to retailers and wholesalers.

TIPA carries out a great deal of work to support growers across the Rio Grande Valley and Texas as a whole, says Galeazzi.

“Our organization is constantly advocating in Austin and D.C. on a range of issues like labor, food safety and regulation,” he says.

TIPA also supports education with partners such as Texas A&M, AgriLife and the Texas Department of Agriculture. The association also runs its own promotional events, including the Viva Fresh Produce Expo and the April In Austin showcase.