Hurricane Dolly’s trek through South Texas last summer is the likely suspect in a 12 percent drop in citrus production there, according to a Texas AgriLife Extension Service citrus specialist.
“Based on historical trends in citrus production here, the 2008-2009 citrus harvest should have been up by 5 or 6 percent from the year before,” said Dr. Julian Sauls. “Instead, it was down nearly 12 percent. Combining those two factors brings the total loss close to the 20 percent that I estimated two days after Dolly passed through.”
Dolly made landfall as a Category 2 hurricane at South Padre Island on July 23, 2008, according to the National Weather Service. It brought high winds and isolated heavy rains to parts of the Valley’s citrus production areas before dipping into Mexico, then turning north through El Paso and finally dying out in New Mexico.
Citrus loss estimates immediately after the storm ranged from a low of 5 percent to as much as 20 percent, depending on where the groves were in relation to Dolly's path, Sauls said.
"Obviously, Cameron County had the greatest losses, with the mid-Valley area around Donna to Mercedes and areas north of Highway 107 also losing quite a bit of fruit."
Figures released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture show a total citrus harvest of 278 tons, a 12 percent decrease from the year before.
"It’s no stretch of the imagination, and it’s obvious, though some argue,” Sauls said, “that the losses to Dolly just weren't that significant. Dolly put her foot down in the Valley and it’s most logical to say she was to blame for these losses.”
Sauls said production from the Lower Rio Grande Valley’s roughly 26,000 acres of citrus shows a clear alternating pattern year to year.
“Since the 1990’s, production has been a zigzag curve,” he said. “It’s up one year, down the next. Not by much, usually about a 5 to 6 percent difference, on average.”
Based on that theory, the 2008-2009 harvest should have been an up year.
“It’s typical that an off year is followed by an on year,” Sauls said. “It’s a natural occurrence; it’s the physiology of the trees.”
Other factors also contribute, he explained.
"For example, if you get a big crop, it takes longer to harvest, so more fruit is still on-tree at the time of spring bloom, thereby reducing potential fruit set for the following season."
The majority, 70 percent to 75 percent, of the area’s $200 million annual citrus production is grapefruit. And it is grapefruit, Sauls said, that primarily accounts for up-down production years.
“Oranges don’t go up and down all that much,” he said. “They are more of a flat line in production. The up-down phenomenon is for the total crop, but it’s grapefruit that does it.”
Despite the losses, there was an upside to Dolly’s damages, Sauls said.
“The good thing about losing fruit from trees between July and September is that what stays on the trees gets bigger, and that’s good because larger fruit typically brings more money to the grower,” he said.
The 2008-2009 harvest, picked this year between late September and May 1, was of good quality, Sauls said.
“Volume was down when it should have been up, but it’s in the books and behind us.”
His prediction for the upcoming 2009-2010 harvest?
“This should be an up year,” he said. “It should come back really strong after two consecutive down years.”