MISSION — Federal officials have lifted an October order banning shipment of Texas citrus fruit to other citrus-producing states, averting an economic blow to Rio Grande Valley growers.
Ray Prewett, president of Mission-based Texas Citrus Mutual, said Tuesday that Valley growers will benefit greatly from the action by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“For the most part, this new federal order says we’re back to business as usual,” Prewett said.
The USDA banned the shipments to avoid spreading Sweet Orange Scab, a fungal pest that was first detected in the United States on lemon and tangerine trees on a single farm in Spring, near Houston, Prewett said.
“SOS” has been controlled by disinfectants, fungicides and wax during the processing and shipping of fruit, he said. It is only a matter of appearance of the fruit’s peel, he said.
The only way the fungal pest can be spread to other states is through shipment of untreated nursery stock, or young trees, Prewett said. But the trees and fruit that receive normal processing before shipment will not spread Sweet Orange Scab, he said.
There are no health risks caused by SOS or eating fruit from trees that were affected by the fungal pest, he said.
The type of SOS detected in the Valley is not the same as what was found in the Spring area, Prewett said.
“It looks like the normal wind scar that we commonly get here in the Valley,” Prewett said.
“The state of Texas is officially under a quarantine, so there’s a little bit of paperwork that has to be attached (to shipments),” he said.
Even if the USDA had not issued an order, states such as California could have banned shipments from Texas if their own agriculture departments determined an outbreak of plant disease could affect their own crops, said Terrie Crockett of Crockett Farms Gift Fruit Shipping in Harlingen.
Prewett said sales of Texas citrus in other citrus states such as California, Arizona, Louisiana and Florida are vital to Texas growers.
“That’s an important part of our market and, so, that was a big relief and a real significant thing for the industry to resume shipping to the other citrus states,” Prewett said.
“We believed the restrictions on such shipments were never justified because our scientists have not been able to confirm that we even have the traditional type of Sweet Orange Scab in our commercial citrus production area in the Rio Grande Valley,” he said.
But on Tuesday, Prewett said SOS had been found elsewhere in Texas.
“It was actually first found in Southeast Texas and that was the first confirmation of this particular fungal disease in citrus in the United States,” he said. “In October, it was found in the Rio Grande Valley, but it was found earlier up in Southeast Texas but nobody was too particularly concerned about here until it was found in October in our commercial citrus area,” Prewett said.
Joe Garza, a Weslaco citrus grower, said many people are concerned about the effect the federal order had on the industry. But his own grapefruit crop and others he knows of are good quality this year, he said.
“It’s about average, it’s a good crop,” Garza said.
Mike Martin of Rio Queen Citrus in Mission, whose company ships to the “fresh market,” meaning grocery stores, as well as to juice producers, said his company and the Valley citrus industry as a whole, “had a crisis on our hands” during the two months the federal order was in effect banning citrus shipments to citrus-producing states.
Citrus producers in the Valley ship about 80 percent grapefruit, Martin said.
Allen Essex is a reporter for the Valley Morning Star in Harlingen.