Texas Farmers and Ranchers Struggle Through Freeze

There are 35 types of fruits and vegetables grown in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. Freezing temperatures may financially ruin some of the region’s growers.

Icicles form on a citrus tree from a sprinkler system used to protect the trees from the freezing temperatures on Monday in Edinburg, Texas. (Delcia Lopez/The Monitor via AP)

HOUSTON (CN) — Gallons of unprocessed milk dumped. Thousands of orange trees dead. Farmers and ranchers from the panhandle of Texas to its southern tip are struggling through bitter cold with some wondering if they can bounce back from the freeze.

Anna Miller, 73, and her husband own a company called the South Texas Citrus Shop and a farm with a little more than 2,000 trees in Mission, Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley.

The temperatures dropped to 21 degrees Fahrenheit this week in the region with a subtropical climate so ideal for farming that there are 35 types of fruits and vegetables grown there.

“We have a huge amount of produce produced here because we are normally freeze free. And I don’t think a lot of Texans have any idea,” Miller said.

Gary Joiner, communications director of the Texas Farm Bureau, said, “The Rio Grande Valley from a crop standpoint is really where a lot of the eyes are on right now in terms of damage from the cold.”

Though Miller and her husband, who handle 50% of their yearly harvest of grapefruit and oranges and hire migrant laborers for the rest, had already picked and packed up most of their crop before the freeze hit, they are not holding out much hope for being able continue the operation.

“I don’t know if any trees survived or not. It will take a week or 10 days until we see,” she said.

Due to a shortage of citrus tree providers, Miller said, should they want to replant it would take two years before they could get new trees.

“Then you’ve got another four years before you are going to have any production. So we’re five, six, or seven years from having new trees in production. We ain’t young. My husband’s 70. Do you think we want to be 80 before we start producing again?” she said.

The difficulties for farmers are being felt statewide due in part to an electricity crisis in which more than 2 million Texans are without power.

People wait in line to fill propane tanks Wednesday in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Calling on Governor Greg Abbott to focus on restoring power to farm operations, Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Sid Miller issued a “red alert” Tuesday for the state’s agriculture industry and food supply chain.

“Dairy operations are dumping $8 million worth of milk down the drains every day because the plants that process that milk don’t have power,” Miller said in a statement. “Grocery stores are already unable to get shipments of dairy products.  Store shelves are already empty. We’re looking at a food supply chain problem like we’ve never seen before, even with Covid-19.”

Joiner, with the Texas Farm Bureau, said ranchers and farmers near the central Texas city of Waco are lining up to get propane and diesel to run their generators and equipment. But the extreme cold has caused diesel to thicken up so people are struggling to get their machines started with it, he said.

Cows have a physiology by which they can survive in freezing temperatures so long as they have grains to eat and water to drink.

Joiner said ranchers also feed their cattle supplements to get them through freezes. “It’s a large pellet,” he said. “You’ll see ranchers distribute that through a feeder that’s attached to their truck, or even out of a sack. You’ll see sometimes ranchers out there pouring supplemental feed on the ground with the big 50-pound feed sacks.”

Newborn calves on the other hand are very fragile.

Despite temperatures in North and Central Texas so cold icicles are forming in ranchers’ ears and noses, Joiner said they are in their fields watching any pregnant cows, ready to move them into a barn or any warm space should they go into labor.

“They’re putting them in the cab of their pickup truck, they’re putting them in an extra room in the house…Because that’s a really rude awakening to come into this world with single digit temperatures out in the pasture,” he said.

The crops of spinach, cabbage, lettuce, and watermelons – which are planted in early January and harvested the last week of April – lost to the freeze could spell financial disaster for some South Texas growers.

“These crops they grow in the Rio Grande Valley to a large extent are not able to be insured. … Federal crop insurance programs do not include them to a large extent. Some cases when you can insure a crop the premium is so high that sometimes it’s not affordable to insure,” Joiner said.

Miller, the citrus grower, said she bought insurance for her trees for 10 years, but recently dropped it after the insurer denied her claim for hurricane damage because it had only destroyed 40% of her trees.

“There was no insurance coverage. It said you had to have more than 50% destroyed,” she said.

Miller suspects her trees are a total loss and her citrus growing days may be over.

“We bought the first orchard that we’ve got in 2011 and I haven’t regretted it. It’s just unless some kind of disaster money comes along, I don’t know if it’s possible for us to replant,” she said.

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