It’s citrus season here in South Texas, and citrus growers in the Rio Grande Valley are preparing for this year’s harvest. Many people aren’t aware that Texas is a citrus-growing state, and not all fruit is shipped here from Florida, California and Arizona.
Oranges and grapefruits, in particular, as well as lemons and limes, make their way from citrus groves in South Texas into San Antonio grocery stores, kitchens and restaurants.
Dave Strohmeyer of G&S Groves in McAllen, Texas, oversees one of the Valley's successful, family-owned citrus farming businesses. The family's success, he says, is built on a strong market and an efficient means of transporting the fruit from farm to fork through the Farm to Table organization.
Farm to Table was founded six years ago by John Lash to provide a link between farmers’ locally-grown products and regional restaurants, independent grocery stores, and schools within San Antonio and Austin.
“I don’t know why San Antonio loves oranges so much, but they do,” Strohmeyer said. “We grow different varieties of oranges because some people like juice oranges made for juicing, while others like navel oranges because they can peel and eat them. There are early and late oranges."
From early December through May, Strohmeyer and his wife, parents, and four children will stay busy as the family harvest, packs, and ships oranges, grapefruit, and other citrus grown on their 200-acre farm.
The business offers online and commercial delivery to produce companies in Texas, selling two kinds of grapefruit, seven varieties of oranges, and lemons and limes. All the farm's fruit is organically certified through the Texas Department of Agriculture and a third-party certifier, he said.
“I feel very lucky to have met David and that he had organic oranges,” Lash said, adding that only a few of the items sourced locally for the Farm to Table organization are organic. Lash said he sources 3-4 tons of oranges each week when they are in season from G&S Groves.
Organic farmers must adhere to strict guidelines, and they face a Catch-22 shipping fruit to other states: Producers must fumigate their product to meet export rules to other citrus-producing states, which renders the citrus inorganic, according to USDA guidelines. Producing a certified organic product adds another layer to the farm-to-fork process.
Over the years, as his business grew, Lash said he learned to source products in advance for delivery to different businesses. A successful farm to table practice requires the farmer to pick and pack produce Thursday and deliver it to Lash by Friday so he can deliver it, for example, to a school on Monday.
“It’s three days from field to school,” Lash said. “It’s the same with oranges. I communicate with David to get them delivered on Saturday. When you call the farmer and say you need 25 cases of lettuce, they don’t just have it sitting around. You’ve got to work with the picking schedule.
“The product in my warehouse is really fluid – it doesn’t stick around very long,” he said. “For a while, I wasn’t even concerned about keeping inventory, because the spinach I bought and picked up on Monday would be gone by Wednesday.”
The delicate balance between supply and demand in local markets, as well as observance of seasonal foods, is no different, really, than how supply and drives the broader food chain. Nowadays, people want an orange that is brighter than its name, so to speak, and they want it year-round.
Organic oranges are generally green rather than orange when picked. Coloring, along with a binding agent, has to be added t produce the color consumers expect and demand.
“The oranges I deliver haven’t been colored, so they’re not the bright orange,” Lash said. “I try to be proactive in giving people an explanation about the oranges, and they’re generally happy with it.”
Despite the variations in orange color, consumer demand has made the sourcing of local produce for the Farm to Table movement a success.
“We’ll sell citrus to more than a few restaurants in Austin and San Antonio who are juicing or eating, and also to schools for eating,” Lash said. “We supply to the Austin school district, Belton, Smithville, and Judson Independent School District in San Antonio.
“I feel like I make a difference with farmers – what we do makes a difference in their life,” Lash said. “The restaurants feel the same way about it. They understand that by buying from us, they’re really helping out farmers. They like that and the customers like that, so at the end of the day, they’re getting a better product and, in a broader sense, helping their neighbors.”
G&S Groves began in the early 1990s as a citrus farm on a small number of acres. In about 2000, Strohmeyer’s father, David, became interested in growing organic fruit trees before the organic produce market had developed. He pioneered the family’s organic business in 2000, mainly through online sales.
Strohmeyer and his wife joined the business in 2004 by helping with the website, and handling marketing and sales. By 2006, the farm had grown into a commercial citrus operation.
For citrus growers, it’s the skin color that determines the price rather than the juice of the orange, he said.
“The hardest thing is learning how to keep the skins clean,” Strohmeyer said. “In South Texas, there is always a wind, and the brushing of the fruit against the leaves causes scarring. The scarring on the fruit determines its grade and selling price. He estimated that between 50 and 70% of their fruit is thrown away due to scarring.
Citrus growers are also grappling with citrus greening, or Huanglongbing, a crippling disease caused by the Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus bacteria, vectored by the Asian Citrus Psyllid insect, whose disease vector has been found by plant pathologists at the Texas Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab through Texas A&M University.
Citrus greening has been found and confirmed in Hidalgo County in January 2012, according to the USDA and Texas Department of Agriculture. Hidalgo and Cameron counties were placed under citrus greening quarantine in the spring this year, and Harris county was quarantined in July. By October, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties also were included in the CG quarantine. The quarantine in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties is known as the Gulf Coast Quarantine. Earlier this month, the department expanded the quarantine to include most of the Rio Grande Valley.
The TDA, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, and groups that include the Texas Citrus Committee have embarked on an awareness campaign targeting consumers, educators, homeowners, and gardeners, as well as growers in Texas, to raise awareness of the disease and prevent it from spreading.
Texas has a strict rules governing citrus shipped from California and Florida, mostly to prevent citrus greening. Farmers who plan on shipping produce from a quarantined area must reach a compliance agreement with the TDA.
For Strohmeyer, the challenges of citrus growing are part of the job. Each year poses different challenges, from hurricanes, floods, drought, to heavy winds. Cold weather and frost can ruin the fruit or even kill trees, which take up to 10 years to bear fruit.
Despite those hurdles, farming remains a family tradition for the Strohmeyers.
“When I moved back to Austin to do startups, (my dad) was down in South Texas, and I thought it would be cool to work with him again,” he said. “I find it a lot of fun to work with my dad. My kids are the ones who really got me involved in the schools with healthy eating and taking care of yourself.”
“I’m super-psyched about the farming aspect – I can take care of tractors, the fields, and know the financial business side,” Strohmeyer said. “The kids all want to stay a part of the business, which is funny because I told them they could do whatever they wanted to do.
“Each one has taken to a different part of the business, so it will be really interested to see what happens in 10 to 15 years,” he said.
While Texas provides an ideal climate for citrus production, there are not that many organic citrus growers across the state, in large part because of federal regulations prohibiting the use of inorganic pesticides and chemicals on their fruit.
Texas A&M's Kingsville Citrus Center provides information about applied research and plant diagnostics to keep the citrus industry competitive in the global market, while the university's MarketMaker website gives producers a space to publish information about their business and products.
Another Texas organic grower, Triple J Organics in Mission, works with TexaSweet Citrus Marketing to advertise, and with Paramount Citrus to ship product to Whole Foods in Austin, SuperValu in Minnesota, and United in Laredo.
Shipping to some of the nation's top food stores is more challenging. Grocers are requiring growers to fill out more complicated applications providing information that authenticates their organic practices.
This fall, Whole Foods introduced its produce rating system as part of the Produce Traceability Initiative to provide customers with good, better, and best ratings on produce similar to those in the store's meat and seafood departments.
"This operation started as a hobby, and it got too big for me, so I've been doing this full-time for eight years," said Jesse Lozano, farmer and distributor of Triple J Organics. "It's a third-generation, family run operation."
It's a complex business, but consumers seem increasingly willing to pay more for food that is certified as local and organic, more like what people grew and brought to market a century ago, when food was produced on family farms and largely consumed within a short distance of where it was grown.
*Featured/top image: David Strohmeyer stands in front of an orange grove at G&S Groves in southern Texas. Photo courtesy of David Strohmeyer.