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Texas freeze killed winter produce, with some food prices expected to spike

Damage to fruits and vegetables from last week’s Texas storms could cause shortfalls at food banks and lead to grocery stores sourcing from further away

Mike Helle, left, and his son, Mike, examine their decimated watermelon crop. They lost 150 acres of watermelons and another 60 of honeydew in last week's Texas freeze. (Texas Farm Bureau)
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Severe storms this month devastated the Texas produce industry, which in the winter is one of the country’s few domestic sources for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Across Texas — the leafy greens in the Rio Grande Valley, onions and cabbage in the Winter Garden area near Laredo, fruit trees in Hill Country in Central Texas, greenhouse operations in Dallas — the weather spared almost nobody who works in the fresh produce industry, said Dante Galeazzi, chief executive of the Texas International Produce Association.

Galeazzi said leafy greens will probably experience the greatest losses, some crops lost entirely. Onions and cabbage seemed to suffer the least, although he said even those farmers are reporting a 20 percent loss overall.

Texas citrus losses have gotten top billing thus far in media reports because it took the largest financial hit. According to Dale Murden, a citrus grower and president of the Texas Citrus Mutual, 55 percent of the state’s grapefruit crop was still on the trees and is a total loss; the late Valencia orange crop was a 98 percent loss, he said.

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“At this time, it also looks like next year’s crop will be greatly diminished if we have anything at all. Crop damage so far is estimated at $305 million,” he said. “The wind blew too hard for any precautions to work, really.”

Gary Joiner, director of communications for the Texas Farm Bureau, said only three of the more than 40 vegetable crops grown during the winter are expected to survive: onions, cabbage and potatoes.

Farmers say it is too late to replant most crops.

On Thursday night, farmer Mike Helle was waiting for a semitrailer of replacement watermelon seedlings from Georgia after losing his crop in the Rio Grande Valley. He started planting them at 4 a.m. on Friday.

Helle said he lost 150 acres of watermelon, 60 acres of honeydew. He said the melon loss alone will cost him $250,000 and is not covered by insurance. He lost row crops like cotton, corn and sorghum, but for those there’s crop insurance.

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In the last 11 months, Texas farmers have faced the coronavirus pandemic, a hurricane, a drought and now a freeze. State officials are still working to establish a dollar amount for losses incurred last week, but the Farm Bureau’s initial estimates point to hundreds of millions of dollars of damage.

Many likened last week’s storm to a historic freeze in South Texas in 1989, but that storm took place in December, when very few crops were in the ground. Helle, who has farmed 2,000 acres for more than 30 years, said this was the worst he’s ever seen in February and was especially devastating because so many valuable spring crops were already planted.

Galeazzi said Texas grocery stores are going to be short on Texas-grown product for the next few months but that Arizona, Florida and Mexico grow many of the same crops in the winter and can fill those gaps. Still, he said consumers nationally should expect to see some price increases because of the logistics associated with procuring products from a different growing region.

“For example, Chicago is 1,700 miles from McAllen, so if a small store in Chicago wants kale and has to go to Florida for their product, they’re going to need to pay the rate for more than 3,000 miles,” he said.

Dya Campos, a spokeswoman for H‑E‑B, one of Texas’s largest grocery chains, said the company is working hard to keep retail prices stable at the shelf.

“We always prioritize and work diligently to support our Texas growers,” she said.

April Martin, corporate affairs manager for Kroger’s Dallas division, said the grocery chain has seen gaps in grapefruit and citrus and will source from California for the remainder of the season. Kroger has also pivoted to source leafy greens, cilantro, cauliflower and celery from Arizona.

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Losing donations from Texas growers will also be an extra burden for state food banks, Eric Cooper, president of the San Antonio Food Bank, said.

“There will definitely be shortages,” he said. “It will put us looking for food in other states, and it will mean higher costs to food banks as they ship from other regions. Less food, higher costs and perhaps more stress on fresh produce as it is trucked over additional miles — all will provide a big challenge for Texas food banks in the coming months.”

The storms exposed insufficiencies in the Texas power grid, and officials have been criticized for not being proactive and anticipating extreme weather events.

Galeazzi said Texas greenhouse operations were also affected by the electricity cuts across the state.

“The facts are,” he said, “our state does not have snowplows at the ready, we don’t have salt or sand for the roads, drivers don’t have all-season tires to handle icy conditions, and the long stretches with no power last week would have wreaked havoc for any indoor growing operation regardless of location — an event of this nature never appears and thus precautions have not been built into our business plans.”