Hot winter, pest problems may cost growers millions

HARLINGEN — The first thing you notice is this cabbage probably shouldn’t be here, not in late April. They should be gone — picked, sorted and packed.

The heads of the red cabbages in this field are the size of tennis balls, and the white cabbages are a little bigger than baseball-sized, softball if one is being charitable. Few are big enough to sell, or even worth harvesting.

Both red and white cabbages have heads and leaves which are brown, baking and rotting in the spring sunshine. Their leaves have been punctured in thousands — millions — of places by the mandibles of insect pests which have been given carte blanche to destroy.

About 10 acres of straight and true rows of cabbages along Dixieland Road — there are many of these abandoned fields in the Valley — remain. Between the rows, yellow-flowered weeds rise six feet and more, swaying in the wind, triumphant victors in a winter growing season gone horribly wrong.

Texas A&M AgriLife professor and vegetable specialist Juan Anciso is blunt: “It was a big disaster.”

Winter that never was

The crucible in which this agricultural catastrophe was brewed can be found in the unseasonably mild winter in the Rio Grande Valley.

February shattered records for heat, with fully one-third of its days at 90-degrees plus along the Rio Grande from McAllen west. It was cooler toward the Gulf Coast, but not much.

The month also saw early full greening and flowering of local plants, quite the phenomenon given it came two months early. In some areas, deep-summer cicadas announced their presence by trilling their buzzy, metallic musical scale before winter, let alone spring, was finished.

“The winter didn’t really see any of our traditional cold fronts come through, and for a while what we saw were 80- to 90-degree temperatures which put real pressure on the plants,” said Dante Galeazzi, the incoming president of the Texas International Produce Association in Weslaco.

“There are probably guys who will have abandoned their fields,” he added. “They didn’t make size because of the heat and had insect damage.”

A paradise for pests

The remarkably warm winter, unseasonably heavy rains in March, typically one of our driest months, and low produce prices provided a triple-punch combination to growers who may have been clinging to small hopes of salvaging something from the season.

“We had a very warm winter and hot days, so that created thrips problems in the onions quite heavily early on,” AgriLife’s Anciso said of the insect pests. “We’ve never seen those kind of excessive thrips numbers.”

Thrips are a slender insect which this year migrated from onion field to cabbage field. While the damage thrips do to vegetables is mostly cosmetic, it’s something that puts off consumers, who won’t purchase them. Which means produce buyers don’t want them, either.

The thrips this year were unusually resistant to the corrective measures growers use typically against them.

Tommy Hanka grows cabbage, onions and leafy greens in the Edinburg area. He answers the phone with, “I was just crying on the other line.”

“The thrips were the worst I’ve ever seen,” he said later. “We couldn’t control ‘em, we couldn’t kill ‘em. We tried traditional, biological, traditional chemicals, and they just wouldn’t kill ‘em.”

In addition to the thrips, other pests also had an impact on the quality of cabbage and leafy greens, with worm populations in cabbage the worst in 20 years, Anciso said.

Anciso said the warm days and the rains in early March, where many areas saw three to seven inches fall, also created ideal conditions for a deadly cabbage malady called black rot, a bacteria.

‘Just a train wreck’

Edinburg’s Hanka said a cascade of events affected prices as well as produce quality, creating a “fiasco” for Valley growers.

Onion prices were depressed by growers in Idaho, Oregon and Washington holding back their onions in storage facilities hoping for a better deal and that overlapped Texas onion production.

“They store those onions for seven-eight months easily and it was hard to compete with those guys,” he said. “Their production costs are much less than ours.”

“And then Mexico is growing more onions,” he said. “This year we were a little bit early on the onions but our onions came on top of their onions, and it was just a train wreck. A tough year to be in the vegetable business in South Texas.”

The poor year for farmers in Texas could mean higher prices for consumers, but it is not expected to be significant since produce buyers have alternative sources of vegetables from areas which weren’t hurt by winter growing conditions.

As unharvested cabbages rot in Valley fields, growers and ag experts say there isn’t a lot to do now, or even anything worth picking.

“They will disc that up,” turn it under, and hope for better next year, Anciso said. “In the past some would go to the food bank, but with food safety issues, that does not happen.

“I would definitely say that as far as the cool-weather crops like onions and cabbage go, this is a season to forget about,” Anciso added. “It’s been really bad. Other crops like cilantro and leafy greens as well.”

Like many growers in times like these, Hanka turns to philosophy when there isn’t much left to say. He’s not the first farmer to do so.

“We hit snake eyes on everything,” he said. “Normally one crop will hit, but this year all crops came up snake eyes.

“It needs to be this way because it keeps everything in balance,” Hanka said with resignation in his voice. “It’s part of the game we have to play, and we’ll play it to the end.”