The return of sunny skies to the Lower Rio Grande Valley comes not a minute too soon for those planting winter vegetables here, according to experts at Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Weslaco.

“For about two months now we’ve had higher than normal rainfall, including heavy rain from Hurricane Dolly, so it’s nice to see it clearing up and finally drying out,” said Dr. Juan Anciso, AgriLife Extension vegetable specialist.

The planting of onions in late September and throughout October kicks off the Valley’s cool-season vegetable crop, but pre-plant operations need to start now, Anciso said.

“If fields are not too soggy, growers need to get in there now to prepare to fertilize, put down pre-emergence herbicides and other work that’s done before actually planting seeds,” he said.

Anciso said the window of opportunity to plant onions closes at the end of October, with harvest starting in late March through April and ending in May. Of great concern to growers this year is the rising costs of fertilizer and fuel.

“Growers are looking at paying 30 percent more for fertilizer and fuel than they have in the past, and that really impacts their budgets,” he said. “And there’s no guarantee that they’ll recoup those expenses at spring harvest. It all depends on what the supply and demand will be at that time.

Despite producing excellent yields, Valley onion growers fared poorly with last season’s crop.

“Growers planted 10,000 acres of onions here last year, but it may be down to 8,000 this year because of the beating growers took with low prices they got for their crops,” he said.

The Valley’s onion harvest grosses an average of $150 million in farm gate receipts, Anciso said. Once the onions are in the ground, other leafy green vegetables are planted throughout the fall.

“A few tomatoes and peppers have been planted, but we’ll have staggered planting of cabbage, parsley, cilantro and other greens through January,” he said.

John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association in Mission, said aside from damage to the summer cotton crop the added rainfall this year has been beneficial.

“Moisture is always nice,” he said. “It improves the soil and increases water reservoir levels and that’s always comforting. But now we need it to dry out so growers can get out into their fields.”

McClung also cited the issue of higher fuel and fertilizer prices, as well as the fact that Valley vegetable production continues to slowly move south of the border.

“Mexico and Latin America are increasing their vegetable production, a lot of which is funded by U.S. dollars,” he said. “But the big wrench in the works is food safety. When Congress meets in January, they’ll be addressing that issue as well as immigration reform, both of which could get very messy.”

McClung said he hopes that whatever legislation comes out of Washington next year will help, not hurt, the state’s half-billion dollar vegetable industry.

“Lots of bills have been introduced, some that make sense, some that don’t. We know we need to improve food safety, but hopefully we’ll do it in a way that is sensible and efficient,” he said.