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Texas Citrus Industry Regaining Strength Lost In 1983 Freeze With BC-Texas Citrus-Theft

December 12, 1987

MISSION, Texas (AP) _ This year’s fruit-filled citrus groves are helping the Rio Grande Valley regain the postcard image it lost four years ago when a hard freeze brought the Texas industry to a screeching halt.

Although things aren’t nearly what they were before the winter of 1983 wiped out thousands of acres of trees and a year’s production, industry leaders say they’re finally back in business.

″We started rebuilding, and it looks like it’s going to pay off,″ said Ken Martin, president and general manager of Warehouse Farms Inc. in Mission, which will handle about 25 percent of this year’s Texas citrus crop. ″We’ve got a lot of volume this year, anyway.″

Truckloads of grapefruit and oranges keep the work force at capacity at the company’s 69,000-square-foot warehouse and packing shed. At the peak of the harvest, in early December, the company expects to employ about 400 people.

In Hidalgo County, where 80 percent of the state’s citrus crop is concentrated, as well as Cameron and Willacy counties, producers give equally upbeat reports.

″We’ve had good demand. We’ve had good movement,″ said Les Whitlock, manager of the Texas Valley Citrus Committee, a McAllen-based quasi- governmental marketing and regulatory organization.

One good sign for the industry, Whitlock said, was the need this year to hire a full-time citrus theft investigator, as in the pre-freeze heyday.

″It’s coming back, and we felt like with more and more theft reports coming in, we needed someone full time,″ Whitlock said.

The freeze took a $100 million industry on 69,000 acres and reduced it to a negligible amount in 1984.

Many investors decided to get out of the business, and mobile home parks have replaced some of the groves. Some of those bailing out were the Europeans, primarily West Germans and French, who accounted for most of the estimated one-third of the Texas citrus industry owned by foreigners.

This year’s crop is valued at a projected $40 million to $50 million on 21,800 producing acres. Another 8,600 acres sport immature trees too young to produce fruit.

It takes about four years for the trees to start producing.

″I think next year we’ll have some young trees starting fairly significant production,″ Whitlock said.

The total crop for 1987-88 is expected to be about 181,000 tons, up significantly from 115,000 tons in the last harvest. Production totaled 600,000 tons before the freeze.

Before 1983, the Texas industry employed more than 7,500 people and amounted to about 20 percent of total U.S. sales of fresh grapefruit and 6 percent of the fresh orange market.

The 1987 work force is estimated to be about half the 1983 level, but an estimate of the market share was not available.

In 1983, there were 24 packing houses and four juice plants operating in Texas. This year, there are 13 packing houses and two juice plants.

But one, the Texsun plant, just reopened this year. Darien, Conn.-based Sundor Group Inc. purchased the Weslaco-based Texsun Corp. in March and announced its intention to market the popular pink grapefruit juice nationwide.

Weather conditions have boosted the harvest’s value by making a higher percentage of grapefruit and oranges suitable for sale as fresh fruit, which sells at a higher price than fruit processed for juice.

And the value of fresh fruit has jumped since 1983.

In early November, grapefruit on the tree was selling for $200 to $300 per ton, while the fresh orange price was $200 to $250.

In November 1983, fresh grapefruit and orange prices were about $80 per ton on the tree.

The surge in fresh fruit prices is bringing investors back, including the Europeans, said Heino Brasch, president of Donna-based Interstate Fruit and Vegetable Co. Inc., which buys, packs and sells citrus and other crops.

In mid-November, his company already had sent nine shipments of citrus to Europe, where the Texas ruby red grapefruit is gaining popularity.

″We’re coming back and the crop looks good this year,″ Brasch said. ″The people are taking care of it, because they got a good price for their fruit last year.″

Brasch, however, says the Texas industry still does not have the volume to advertise effectively in Europe.

Shipments to Japan and Taiwan also show potential, said Mike Martin, who works with his father, Ken Martin, at Warehouse Farms, which sent fruit to those countries this year, including 20,000 pounds of grapefruit shipped by air to Japan.

″That’s how bad they wanted the fruit,″ the younger Martin said.

Those in the industry add a bit more caution to their upbeat talk, because they never know what their greatest potential enemy - winter - might do.

″If we get through this year, if the weather cooperates, we’ll be in a lot better shape than we have been,″ Mike Martin said.

Another factor in the Texas industry’s potential worth is an on-going battle with their counterparts in Florida over a proposal to resume shipments of Florida fruit to other citrus-producing areas.

Florida fruit shipments were halted after an outbreak of the destructive citrus canker disease in 1984.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal to allow those shipments again, with certain restrictions, has drawn loud protests from Texas producers.

End Adv Dec 12-13

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