Texas Produce Diversifies Significantly

Texas ProducePhoto Courtesy of Texas Department of Agriculture

The state fills an essential role in the national food supply

Texas is well-known as the national leader in cattle and cotton production, and a little less celebrated as No. 1 in the number of sheep and goats, and mohair production.

But the Lone Star state also harvests an abundance of produce — more than $400 million in vegetables and a combined total of more than $90 million in fresh fruit and vegetable exports — according to the Texas State Department of Agriculture. “The sale of Texas produce has become more complex over the years,” says Richard De Los Santos, marketing coordinator for the Go Texan program of the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) in Austin. “Meeting the needs of consumers who want a variety of products, including local and organic, makes it a challenge for producers and retailers alike.”

As tastes evolve, producers are growing kale, microgreens and organic Shiitake mushrooms. “The demand for healthy, fresh, great-tasting and locally grown produce gets bigger and bigger in Texas,” says Dante Galeazzi, sales representative for Frontera Produce in Edinburg. “The top commodities for us over the past few years have been onions, watermelon, cabbage, cilantro and chili peppers.”

Key Producer In Winter Months

Texas is a major supplier of grapefruit and fresh market oranges, with more than 5,000 acres of citrus; and the major producers are poised to expand.

While much of the country is covered in snow during the first few months of the year, Texas is harvesting an array of produce, including broccoli, beets, celery, Chinese Savoy, red cabbage, spinach, kale, oranges and sweet potatoes, among others.Texas grower-shippers report increased wintertime demand, in particular, for greens. “The main product is greens; we can’t keep up with the demand,” says Kurt Schuster, chief financial officer at Val Verde Vegetable Company in McAllen. “It really started to increase five or six years ago, around the time kale became big. The great majority of our produce leaves the state; we go all the way to Canada.”

Schuster’s family has been growing in Texas since his father, Frank Schuster Sr., arrived in the area from Austria in 1935 with nothing.During his time he built a prosperous farm — known for being on the cutting-edge of production technology — harvesting cabbage, broccoli, cucumber, onion and cantaloupe. “November through May is when we harvest the most; February is our biggest month,” says Schuster. “People want fresh vegetables in the winter, and everyone else is frozen over.”

The variety of winter greens grown and shipped out of Texas reflects the evolving diversity of preference and taste in vegetables. “With the recent explosion of kale, other items have worked their way to the forefront,” says Jeff Brechler, sales and production representative at J&D Produce, Edinburg. “We’re two or three weeks away from our leafy green program, which includes cabbage. Of the greens, only a small percentage stays in Texas. Our primary market is the Northeast and Canada. We’ve seen nutraceuticals grow. Locally grown and organic seem to be the buzzwords today.”

Texas plays a major role in supplying many fruits and vegetables when most of the country is frozen over. “We’re seeing more demand for diversity in our crops,” says Galeazzi. “We’ve done winter squashes, and the demand for more varieties of chili peppers is growing; we’ll be harvesting cauliflower in a few weeks.”

Frontera Produce is among many Texas growers that also ship produce from Mexico to supply a larger number of items nationwide over a longer period. “Our Texas-grown produce is sent all over the country,” says Galeazzi. “And when we complement those products with the assortment of items we bring in from Mexico, like mangos and limes, it really makes sense because the buyers are experiencing one-stop shopping and filling all their SKUs without having to wait on multiple trucks from multiple regions.”

But this produce diversity, notwithstanding the Texas Ruby Sweet grapefruit and Texas Super Sweet 1015 onion, continues to lead the list of items grown and harvested in the Lone Star state and shipped throughout the country and beyond.

Delano, CA-based Wonderful Citrus has quickly become a major player in Texas and is ready to lead in expanding the state’s grapefruit and orange production. “Long term, we’ll see Texas increase acreage in citrus,” says Bret Erickson, president and chief executive of the Texas International Produce Association. “There is a steady increase; that’s what I’m hearing from industry folks. We’ve had consolidation. Wonderful manages around 70 percent of Texas commercial citrus; it owns probably closer to 35 to 40 percent. I know they are looking at expanding their acreage, and I know Lone Star, our second-largest producer, is also looking to expand.”

In the citrus market, Texas competes with Florida, which is enduring a crop disease epidemic, and California, which is facing uncertainties from drought and water regulation politics.

Texas growers are keeping a watchful eye to manage citrus greening, the devastating disease carried by the Asian citrus psyllid that has wreaked havoc with Florida orange production. “We’re in year six of citrus greening, and it was in year six that Florida started to see decline in yield and quality,” says Erickson. “We haven’t seen any decline yet, and our growers have been proactive in controlling the psyllid and maintaining vigorous trees.”

Texas is worth watching with the other major winter production areas contending with weather and crop disease issues. “All things considered, I think the outlook for Texas-grown produce is very positive, as long as Mother Nature is agreeable,” says Erickson. “We’ve had a decent amount of moisture over the past year or so. Although by no means are we in the clear, our reservoirs are hovering around the 50 percent mark and we have decent moisture in the ground. For the short term, Texas is in good position, especially with serious drought challenges faced by California growers. Florida has had the opposite issue and has seen several major flooding events that have impacted supplies.”

Go Texan

Fresh Texas CabbageWhile national markets for the signature fruit and vegetable items out of Texas are strong and growing, the state’s agriculture continues to grow more diverse as it reflects the evolving tastes of the local residents. “Most people know about Texas citrus and the other items from down in the valley, but we also have a pretty good-sized berry industry that hardly ever goes outside of Texas,” says Bart Ramage, sales representative for Fresh Point Dallas, a subsidiary of Sysco in Dallas. “I do business with Kroger, Safeway and some regional grocery stores; and the local blueberry and blackberry deals are a hot item.”

Ramage sources a variety of fruit and vegetable crops from various regions of the state and sells them to markets in Texas. “In the Winter Garden area, they’re growing broccoli, cabbage and green beans on a commercial scale,” says Ramage. We also have small growers who supply us with yellow zucchini and Mexican gray squash. We have a couple of guys that grow okra, and there is pretty good demand for Texas tomatoes and pickling cukes. We also have a pretty good-sized peach area in the state. There’s a good-sized produce industry in Texas outside of the Rio Grande Valley.”

State agricultural agencies have gotten involved with growers and retailers to make the most out of the desire to buy local produce. “The ‘buy local’ movement continues to grow in Texas,” says TDA’s De Los Santos. “The Texas Department of Agriculture has developed a statewide retail marketing initiative to promote Texas produce at retail stores by partnering with retailers in Texas to create sampling events, indoor signage and media outreach. We also are working with our international team to promote Texas fruits, vegetables and pecans all over the world.”

In addition to signage and demonstrations, there are other promotional activities under the Go Texan name. “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 has been available for in-store demos and sampling. The Texas Department of Agriculture is also working with other partners to cross-promote Texas fruits and vegetables.”

Both growers involved in Go Texan and farmers markets in the state are listed on the Go Texan website. “Be sure to check out our marketing program’s website, www.gotexan.org, to see a list of members who grow produce in Texas,” says De Los Santos. “We also have a list of Go Texan-certified farmers markets to help people find access to fresh and local produce.”

Manygrowers are finding markets among the state’s retailers looking to Go Texan with their produce. “We see an increasing importance on ‘locally grown’ programs at the retail level, creating a premium for Texas-grown products,” says TIPA’s Erickson. “I believe these initiatives are good for Texas producers now and in the future.”

After growing outside Lubbock for more than four decades, Bernie Thiel of Sunburst Farms, Lubbock, TX, discovered just how many of his neighbors wanted to buy local produce.

While most of Thiel’s land is in squash grown under the Sunburst Farms name and shipped throughout the state, he has had success devoting modest acreage to his own local produce stand. “The market is going good; the local people come by,” says Thiel. “It’s steady; we get new customers all the time. We’ve been out here several years, and people come out here. We grow six or seven varieties of summer squash, pickling and slicer cucumbers, okra, green beans, pinto beans, cantaloupe, seven or eight varieties of peppers.”

Even his main commodity, squash, is largely sold to retailers within Texas. “We’re mainly shipping squash in the state of Texas,” says Thiel. “People are pretty territorial about their squash; everybody has their own growers. We have shipped a little to New Mexico and Colorado, but Texas is a huge market. We have Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio. We harvest squash from the first of June to the middle of October. We harvested every day this year from June 1 to Oct. 13.”

Thiel was among the first growers to sign up for the Go Texan program and believes it has played a role in increasing demand for the state’s produce. “I’ve been in it for 44 years, and Texas produce has gotten more popular,” says Thiel. “We do promote our squash to our retail customers as being from Texas; I think the buyers like it.”

With a population as large and diverse as Texas, some of the growers serving the local market offer produce that seems to have a touch of northern California flavor. “We have a pretty good-sized company that grows organic herbs,” says Fresh Point’s Ramage. “There are also two or three pretty large mushroom growers. We even have a small organic farmer who grows only Shiitake mushrooms, and he does a good job. We sell pretty much what he grows within Texas. We also have growers of sprouts and microgreens.”

Growers who ship most of their harvest out of state have also signed up to Go Texan. “We’ve had the Go Texan logo for a couple of years now,” says Val Verde Vegetable’s Schuster. “The point of it is to sell Texas produce in Texas. We do promote our produce as being from Texas. We use signage and logos, and every carton says it is from McAllen, TX. It’s hard to measure how effective it is.”

During the winter, growers find the name helps when they are competing far from home with other warm-weather production areas. “The Texas name does carry some weight,” says J&D Produce’s Brechler. “We’re in a similar time slot as Florida and Georgia, and, of course, California.”

Lone Star Cornucopia

Texas farmers have developed a long list of significant fruit and vegetable crops, as the state’s agriculture diversifies to serve both local and North American markets.

“Onions, grapefruit, oranges, cabbage, spinach, watermelon, carrots, winter greens, squash, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and cucumbers are the top produce commodities grown in Texas,” says Richard De Los Santos, marketing coordinator for the Go Texan program of the Texas Department of Agriculture in Austin. “The Texas Department of Agriculture has been contacted by international buyers regarding the purchase of sweet potatoes.”

Texas’ Top 10 produce commodities by acreage in 2015, according to Texas International Produce Association statistics, may include a few surprises.

1. Watermelon 29,000 acres

2. Potatoes 20,000

3. Grapefruit 17,707

4. Oranges 8,892

5. Onions 8,700

6. Cabbage 6,100

7. Sweet Corn 4,400

8. Chile Peppers 3,000

9. Spinach 2,200

10. Squash 2,100

The onion is the state’s top vegetable crop by dollar value, led by the Texas Super Sweet 1015. The Texas Ruby Red was the first grapefruit in the country granted a patent.

Green cabbage, carrots, herbs, mushrooms, turnips and greenhouse tomatoes are shipped year-round, according to the Go Texan produce availability chart posted on its website, gotexan.org.