The South Texas melon crop seems to have dodged an icy bullet. The recent cold snap that plunged the state into a deep freeze and the Lower Rio Grande Valley to near freezing temperatures appears to have had no ill effects on extreme South Texas agriculture.

The Valley's cool-weather vegetable crops, including onions, cabbage, carrots and other greens not yet harvested, can survive temperatures in the mid - to upper 20s. But recently planted spring crops were especially at risk.

“We came very close to freeze damage, especially to spring crops that are susceptible to cold right now,” said Juan Anciso, a vegetable specialist at the Texas A&M University System Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Weslaco.

Anciso was referring to warm-season crops, including potatoes, watermelon and cantaloupe.

“Fortunately, temperatures only dropped to about 35 degrees. Had it dropped to 32, these crops could have been hurt, especially potatoes, which were at a very sensitive stage,” he said.

Valley growers have planted about 4,500 acres of cantaloupe, about the same as last year.

The number of producers has decreased slightly, however, because of irrigation issues and economics, Anciso said. “These guys don't just grow cantaloupes; they grow other vegetables, and it's been tough to have decent markets for vegetables.”

Planting began as scheduled the last week of January, Anciso said.

“Temperatures of 70 degrees and mostly sunny days made conditions excellent for planting.”

The plants emerged on schedule. “I'd say they are growing well with not too many problems because we had no rain or significant weather to delay or affect planting,” he said.

Harvest should begin in mid- to late-April and should be completed by late May.

“It's hard to predict (the outcome), but if we stay with good weather, we'll have a normal-sized crop, similar to last year's,” he said.

Normal yields range from 500 to 600 boxes per acre, but yields can reach as high as 800 boxes per acre.

The downside to the good start for cantaloupes may be the market. “Producers should not get their hopes up about a high market,” Anciso said, “in spite of the fact that Mexico has been banned from importing cantaloupes because of salmonella outbreaks in 2002.”

California and Arizona, which rank higher than Texas in the amount of cantaloupes produced, may take up the slack. Still, South Texas growers could benefit from the early market.

“Texas produces some of the earlier cantaloupes that hit the U.S. market,” Anciso said.

The import alert against Mexico began in October, and negotiations are ongoing to allow Mexico to begin shipping cantaloupes to the United States.

All cantaloupes in the Rio Grande Valley go to major markets in Texas and the Midwest.

The Valley's citrus may actually benefit from the cold snap since temperatures did not dip into the 20s, which can ruin fruit, limbs and even entire trees, depending on the duration of such temperatures.

Larry Cade, general manager of the Edinburg Citrus Association, said cold weather is preferable to hot weather, which can produce a green mold in citrus and ruin the fruit.

“It's too late in the season for cold to color up the fruit,” Cade said, “but that already happened back in November and December. In fact, trees are ready to bloom any time now for next year's crop, so we don't need any more cold weather once that happens.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com