Deep in the boot of Texas, the fertile Rio Grande Valley is the soul of successful Texas farming. Abundant cultivated crops of grains and cotton, as well as vegetables, nuts and fruits (with an emphasis on citrus), have long earned the region a reputation as a fertile agricultural playground.

As early as 1870 a sophisticated but simply designed system of area-wide irrigation was developed that tapped water from the swift-running Rio Grande River for farms that popped up from the tip of Texas northwest up the riverbank as far as Mission and north along the coast to Raymondville, and it wasn’t long before the Valley was supplying fresh foods to distant cities and states.

But time has brought changes. U.S. and Mexico have struggled with water rights and treaties, have compromised with a few joint water projects, and have fumbled through diplomatic attempts at détente to satisfy disgruntled farmers and cities on both sides of the border. But the bickering has brought less water to the Valley, and that was only the first setback.

As food demand rapidly grew and agricultural technology provided more efficient methods of farming various land types, farmers in Southern New Mexico and the San Luis Valley of Colorado began expanding their operations to meet the growing demands. With that came new geo-political tensions, and eventually agreements were reached between three states and two nations on how the water of the Rio Grande would be divided. And then the rains stopped.

Some call it climate change and others say it is a simple cyclic transition of weather patterns over an extended period of time, but regardless the reason, annual rainfall averages have mostly been falling since the early 1950s with only brief periods of respite, usually perpetuated by tropical storms or hurricanes.

By the early 1990s, rich farming lands in Mexico began exporting well-received fruits and vegetables from across the border, and the water disagreements grew, further hampering the flow of water in the Rio Grande and decreasing allocations to water districts all across the Valley.

It would be fair to say that agricultural production in the Valley “is not what it once was.”

Valley still productive

But make no mistake, it remains a viable and profitable business in the Valley if you own land, are smart and probably lucky enough to adapt to changes. The successful Valley producer of modern times remains watchful of changing trends and technologies and understands the need to make the right choices each year before the first seed goes into the ground.

While 2012’s drought adversely hurt harvest numbers in the Valley, it was a year of slight recovery for most. More grain sorghum was planted and less cotton; yields varied greatly from one part of the region to the next. Citrus production was up slightly, but quality was much better than the year before, while the usually-profitable onion industry took a hard hit just before the harvest of a good crop.

Experts are warning that 2013 may be similar, and could be worse for some if they aren’t careful of the choices they make now before planting begins.

“Some of the larger water districts with large tracts of agricultural lands have told their growers they will receive only one irrigation this year,” said Brad Cowan, an AgriLife Extension agent in Hidalgo County. “Sugarcane, citrus and vegetables all require five to eight or more irrigations, so you can see the severe impact this water shortage is likely to have on agriculture this year.”

Experts say making good crop choices this year, like most years of recent times, could mean the difference between making it or losing it. While more sorghum acres are expected this year, it’s well to remember that strong corn prices make other grains worth consideration. Dryland cotton is another alternative, but Cowan warns that numbers could be down for dryland crops if rain doesn’t fall. Also, cotton market outlook remains uncertain after being down last year and they show little or no signs of improving this year.

Citrus growers continue their fight against HLB, or citrus greening disease. While a quarantine area is small and the disease has caused only minimal damage so far, concerns over psyllid populations in parts of the Valley keep producers on watch.

“A good rain or two up in the watershed would sure help the outlook as planting season approaches. It will be interesting to see if rain develops in our forecast,” Cowan said.

But in spite of the hurdles ahead, Cowan says he and many farmers remain optimistic that good planning can help farmers in the Valley stay ahead of the curve of a changing agricultural environment.