Citrus is native to the Orient, having been known in China more than 4,000 years ago. Early explorers carried citrus to the Mediterranean area of Europe. From there it was carried to the West Indies by early settlers. Citrus subsequently spread across the Americas with early explorers, missionaries and settlers.
Orchards were established along the Texas Gulf Coast in the 1880’s. The earliest record of citrus in the Lower Rio Grande Valley was seedling orange trees planted by Don Macedonio Vela at the Laguna Seca Ranch in 1882. Orchards planted on trifoliate orange rootstock over the next quarter century failed because the rootstock does not tolerate alkaline soils or saline conditions of soil and water. Charles Volz successfully established an orange orchard on sour orange rootstock in 1908.
Limited acreages of Foster (seedy, red) and Thompson (seedless, pink) grapefruit were established in the Valley in the late 1920s and into the 1930s. Ruby Red grapefruit was patented in 1934 as a bud sport discovered in 1929 on a Thompson tree imported from Florida in 1926. Redblush originated as a rebudded sour orange sprout, with the bud taken from a Thompson tree from the same lot of trees which gave rise to the Ruby Red.
Thus, the Texas citrus industry began, leading to a peak of more than 100,000 acres in the 1940s. Moreover, Texas’ reputation for quality red grapefruit production was established by the varieties which originated within the Valley.
Changes and improvements in the Texas citrus industry have occurred primarily in response to natural disasters, particularly the freezes of the late 1940s, 1951, 1962, 1983, and 1989. From the earliest plantings of seedy oranges and white, seedy grapefruit, today’s orchards are primarily seedless oranges and super-red seedless grapefruit. Other improvements over time include closer tree spacings, laser land leveling, low-volume irrigation systems including microsprayers and drip tubing, mechanical grove care equipment, more extensive use of herbicides for orchard floor management, and a juice processing facility for packinghouse eliminations.
A severe freeze over Christmas of 1983 destroyed 70 percent of that season’s crop and reduced acreage from 69,200 acres to about 22,000 acres. No citrus fruit was produced during the 1984-85 season and only a modest amount in the 1985-86 season. Replanting was well underway, with approximately 36,000 acres in production, when another major freeze over Christmas of 1989 reduced the acreage to around 12,000. Obviously, production was curtailed at that point, and did not resume until the 1991-92 season. Although acreage increased to about 35,000 during the 1990’s, urbanization, other land use, overall citrus economics, and other factors combined to lower citrus acreage to an estimated 27,000 acres in 2005.
The Texas citrus industry is almost totally located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, with about 85 percent of the acreage in Hidalgo County, 14 percent in Cameron County and only about 1 percent in Willacy County. Although hurricanes can cause considerable tree and crop damage, the major limiting factor in Texas citrus production is the risk of severe freeze damage. The economic costs of rehabilitating and/or replanting citrus orchards following a freeze are accentuated by the costs of recapturing markets lost to competing areas during freeze recovery.
The probability of a freeze in Texas is about the same as in Florida, but freezes usually are more damaging to the Texas citrus industry because of its concentration in a relatively small geographic area. Thus, a severe freeze in the Valley affects all orchards. By contrast, Florida and California acreage is dispersed over such a large geographic area that freezes rarely affect more than a portion of total acreage.
Although land prices in the Valley generally are lower than in competing citrus areas, Texas citrus production costs tend to be slightly higher than those for fresh fruit production in Florida. A major difference in costs can be attributed to irrigation, i.e., Texas citrus irrigation is essential and labor intensive. Florida citrus areas normally receive more than twice as much rainfall as the Valley, thereby reducing irrigation needs. Also, irrigation systems in Florida require comparatively less labor. Lower average orchard sizes in Texas preclude some economies afforded by larger operations.
Average Texas citrus production is somewhat lower than in Florida, even for the same rootstock-scion combinations, although Valley soils are considerably more fertile. Lower Texas production may result from a combination of soil and water salinity; the effects of generally hot, dry winds during flowering on initial fruit set; and smaller overall tree sizes because of higher tree densities and periodic freeze damage. Total production fluctuates from year to year, primarily in response to the prior season’s production and to climatic variations from year to year. However, orchard management expertise is a critical factor in production, as better growers in Texas, just as in other citrus-producing areas, typically outproduce the average-in the good years as well as those not so good.
The ownership of Texas citrus is difficult to determine with certainty. Prior to the freezes of the 1980’s, indications were that absentee investors owned about one-half of the total acreage and owner-operators controlled about 25 percent, with the remainder being owned by local owner-investors. The primary distinction between the latter two categories is that the owner-operator makes all management decisions and applies the necessary inputs and equipment, while the local owner-investor may assume all or part of the management decisions but will contract production operations. It may be assumed that the ownership structure of the current acreage has changed little in the last 25 years. Much of the absentee-owned acreage and some of the local owner-investor acreage is under contract to orchard care companies, and some absentee-owned acreage is managed by a permanent staff using company-owned equipment.
Primary market outlets for Texas citrus traditionally have been commercial shipments of fresh fruit into the domestic markets of the U.S. and Canada, including fund raising, and processed juice products. The industry has not been extensively involved in fresh fruit export markets. A lesser but highly significant volume of fresh production is marketed as gift fruit and at local roadside stands. Fruit which does not meet fresh market grades is primarily processed for juice concentration, although some grapefruit is sectioned for the food service industry.
Grapefruit and oranges dominate the Texas citrus industry, as less than 100 acres of other citrus are reported. There may be good potential for small acreages of so-called speciality citrus, particularly some of the tangerines, tangelos, lemons, limes, pomelos, and othes. Such speciality citrus fruits should generate high returns in both gift fruit sales and at local roadside markets, even though production and marketing risks may be somewhat higher than for traditional grapefruit and orange orchards.
The Texas citrus industry has a solid infrastructure that has survived the economic hardships created by the freezes of the 1980’s. Consolidations and mergers of packinghouses, grove care companies, supply and/or chemical companies have been the norm during the last 15 or so years. Today, there are three major packinghouses, plus several smaller ones, and one major processor, although some processing is carried out by existing packinghouses. The citrus industry is served by the Texas Valley Citrus Committee, TexaSweet Citrus Advertising, Texas Citrus and Vegetable Growers and Shippers Association, Texas Citrus Mutual, Texas Produce Association, Texas Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Texas Agricultural Statistics Service, the Rio Grande Valley Grove Managers Association, and Texas Citrus Growers League. Moreover, citrus research and Extension programs are conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Texas A&M University-Kingsville Citrus Center, the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station and the Texas Agricultural Extension Service-all of which have personnel and facilities in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
The total value of the citrus industry to the Texas economy normally is more than $200 million. The total crop value to the grower usually tops $50 million annually.
The present outlook for the Texas citrus industry is fairly stable. Although the overall size of the industry has decreased to about 40 percent of that existing in 1980, the demand for premium quality Texas Rio Red grapefruit and Texas sweet oranges continues to weather the vagaries of the market.