Despite hurricane damage and an unstable economy, this year’s Texas citrus harvest is off to a good start, according to a Texas AgriLife Extension Service citrus expert.

“All in all, this year’s crop is of good quality, plentiful and nutritious,” said Dr. Julian Sauls, an AgriLife Extension citrus specialist in Weslaco.

Harvest started the first week of October in deep South Texas after an unusually wet growing season that included Hurricane Dolly, he said.

“Winds from Dolly in late July knocked some fruit off the trees, but that loss in tonnage should be offset by an increase in fruit size that’s occurring now that sunshine has returned,” Sauls said.

The sizing and harvest of this year’s crop was delayed as trees struggled in August and September with cloudy skies, excess soil moisture and the re-growth of leaves lost to Dolly’s winds, Sauls said.

Based on the crop estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Sauls expects citrus shipments to continue through April.

“The official USDA crop estimate is down a little over 13 percent from last year in both oranges and grapefruit, so they are looking at about 10.6 million, 40-pound cartons of grapefruit and 3 million cartons of oranges,” he said.

Actual losses to Dolly are debatable.

“Based on historic production cycles, this season should have had a greater volume than last season, even if only by a couple of percentage points,” Sauls said. “Instead, the estimate is for decreased production, though there is little agreement as to the extent of loss to Hurricane Dolly.”

After the storm there was concern in the industry that standing water in orchards could stress the trees and cause disease or more fruit to drop, but that has not been a major issue. Tree death or decline from excess moisture has been minimal, he said. Demand for the Texas citrus crop – typically grown for the fresh market and for Christmas gift boxes – appears good. Sauls said despite concerns about the economy, the market should pick up as consumers are reintroduced to the taste of Texas fruit.

“There is concern that the current state of the economy could depress consumer purchases of fresh fruit, but that has not been the case so far,” he said.

Fruit that was severely banged up during the turbulent summer weather may result in a slight decrease in the percentage of fruit sold as top-grade fresh fruit (called packout) versus blemished fruit sold as lower grades or to juice plants. “I would expect a bit lower packout rate than usual as there is some scarring caused by storm winds, and because of increased rust mite damage,” Sauls said.

“Groves were nearly inaccessible during July and August and even into September because of rain, and growers were not able to go in and treat for pests.

Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual, said more blemished fruit is going to juice compared to last year, but unblemished fresh fruit is moving well. “Florida’s citrus crop is off from last year so we’ve had good movement,” he said. “And our highest grade of fruit, or fancy fresh, is bringing premium prices, so we’re doing well. But we do have a challenge in that blemished fruit goes to juice or a lower grade of citrus even though the quality inside the fruit is excellent.”

Prewett said the Texas citrus industry is evaluating the feasibility of improving returns on such fruit by selling it as value-added, fresh cut fruit in supermarkets.

Prewett concurs with USDA’s estimate of a 13 percent drop in crop production this year but says the actual decrease may never be known.

“We may never know exactly how much crop loss we had due to weather-related events because we didn’t know how much fruit was on the trees before Hurricane Dolly made landfall in July,” he said.

But some fruit and some groves fared better than others.

“Oranges, since they are lighter than grapefruit, fared better, but some orchards in the hurricane’s path may have suffered losses of as much as 50 percent,” Prewett said.

“We’re trying to get a disaster declaration from the Secretary of Agriculture, and there’s no reason to believe we won’t get it.”

Prewett said the Texas grapefruit and orange crops have an annual impact of $150 million to $200 million on the South Texas economy.