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Farmers Ask Texans To Support Local Products As They Bounce Back From Winter Storm Losses

Dale Murden's citrus orchards in Harlingen were damaged by the freeze. Texas Citrus Mutual's early estimates point to more than $300 million in crop losses.
Courtesy of Dale Murden
Courtesy of Dale Murden
Dale Murden's citrus orchards in Harlingen were damaged by the freeze. Texas Citrus Mutual's early estimates point to more than $300 million in crop losses.

Texas grocery store shelves have begun filling out again. But for the state’s agriculture industry, recovering from the winter storm will take time, and consumers are likely to feel it in their pockets.

The historic freeze and power outages brought agriculture across the state to a halt. Dairy farmers were forced to dump gallons of unpasteurized milk for days as processing plants were left without power. Packing houses also shut down with machinery cut off from electricity and employees unable to make their shifts, said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller.

Meanwhile, the products on the market were quickly bought up by panicked Texans just before and after the storm. By Monday, Miller said he had seen the price of hamburgers go up to $8.50 a pound, and he expects prices to remain elevated as the food supply chain stabilizes.

“It's not going to be back to normal for at least six to eight weeks,” Miller said. “You'll still see shortages of some stuff, and even though the shelves may be full, the prices will be high.”

But it won’t be from dairy farmers and ranchers making a profit. It’s the processing plants now in great demand that will “make a killing,” Miller said, just as when the pandemic disrupted food supply chains last year.

“And all these prices going up when consumers can least afford it from all the repair bills they’re gonna have, some being off work and dealing with, you know, the COVID pandemic,” he said.

In South Texas, Miller said the cold cost the exotic animal industry some of their game and destroyed farmers’ crops. The area is home to lots of produce and citrus fields.

“They had some oranges and grapefruit harvested but what was left in the field is pretty much 100% loss on the oranges, at least 60% or better on the grapefruit,” Miller said. “A lot of little citrus farmers won't be able to survive that. They'll go out of business.”

Gov. Greg Abbott asked for the Rio Grande Valley counties of Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy, as well as other impacted neighboring counties, to be designated as disaster areas by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which would open the door for farmers to secure federal emergency loans.

Early estimates from the industry group Texas Citrus Mutual point to losses of more than $300 million in those three Valley counties alone.

“This freeze couldn't have come along at a worse time,” said Dale Murden, president of Texas Citrus Mutual.

Citrus growers harvest from October through about April and May, but their trees also begin to bloom in February and March, Murden said.

“So the significance of this freeze is I have two crops on the tree, the current crop, which would be the 2021 season, and then next year's crop, which would be the 2122 seasons,” he said.

The last time the Valley saw a freeze of this kind in 1989 the cold wiped out a “staggering” number of crops and “diminished” the farmers in the industry, Murden said.

“Citrus is a long-term investment, and you can only take so much before you just decide enough's enough,” he said.

For now, Murden and others hope the trees themselves did not sustain much damage, but they won’t know for sure until the next season.

The full scope of the losses will take at least weeks and up to months to assess, but those in the industry have already dubbed the freeze the “St. Valentine's Day Massacre for Texas produce,” said Dante Galeazzi, president and CEO of the Texas International Produce Association.

The economic blow to Texas’ $1 billion produce sales will also be felt by workers in farms and related fields such as packing and shipping, Galeazzi said.

For consumers, the impact may be lessened by produce imports from other states and Latin America, which have begun steadily flowing into Texas after slowdowns caused by icing and unsafe conditions on roadways.

The Port of Laredo, Texas’ busiest land port, saw traffic decline by about 10% during the cold snap, compared to the previous week, said Teclo J. Garcia, Laredo’s economic development director. But once the inclement weather cleared, he said traffic began returning to normal levels.

Murden said he asks Texans to remember to support local citrus and agriculture products when they go back on the market.

“As a grower, I'd love for the consumer to remember and stick with it,” he said.

The USDA said it had received Abbott’s request for a secretarial disaster designation and was working with county emergency boards to determine whether they met the requirement of a 30% or more production loss from at least a single crop.

The Texas Farm Service Agency also requested emergency loans for physical damage and losses, said Eddie Trevino, the acting state executive director for the USDA FSA office.

“The secretarial designation takes a little bit more time, so we’re trying to move and provide any assistance that could be helpful to our producers as soon as possible,” he said.

Producers in counties under President Joe Biden’s major disaster declaration, including Cameron and Hidalgo, can already apply for special emergency relief.

But assistance through the USDA’s livestock indemnity and tree assistance programs is also available without a disaster designation, Trevino said. He recommends farmers and ranchers document any damage they find and quickly contact their local Farm Service Agency offices for guidance on what aid they may access.

Miller said he has also opened up the State of Texas Agriculture Relief Fund, which uses private donations to grant reimbursements for infrastructure repairs from disasters, but he hopes federal aid kicks in soon.

“We're gonna run out,” he said. “We're not going to have enough money to do the things you know to help enough people.”

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María Méndez can be reached at maría@tpr.org or on Twitter at @anxious_maria