Massive floodwaters that were safely channeled through South Texas in the summer of 2010 caused minimal agricultural losses, according to statistics released recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Despite the threat of floodwaters not seen here in over 30 years, crops did well this year,” said Dr. Luis Ribera, an agricultural economist at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Weslaco.

The good news may stretch into 2011, thanks to healthy commodity prices for growers, he said.

“Ag losses as of late November, according to USDA’s Risk Management Agency, total just under $3 million,” Ribera said. “While we hate to see any losses, it’s significantly lower than what we suffered in 2008 and 2009.”

And it’s a far cry from losses the industry would have suffered had the levees along the Rio Grande not held this summer, he added.

Minimal losses

“Losses here would have been staggering, not just in agriculture but throughout the area,” he said. “Had the levees not held, we likely would have lost all crops, not just this year, but for years to come.”

Agriculture in the four-county area of the Lower Rio Grande Valley accounts for $548 million in “gate receipts” to farmers, with an economic impact of $1.2 billion annually, according to Ribera.

Drought losses consumed roughly half of last year’s crops of cotton, corn and sorghum. Losses to the half million acres planted amounted to $19.13 million. In 2008, Hurricane Dolly cost growers just over $25 million in losses, according to the USDA.

“We did much better this year,” Ribera said. “Of the half million acres planted in cotton, corn and sorghum in Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties, failed or lost acres were pegged at 48,068, or just under 10 percent, with a value of $2.9 million,” Ribera said.

Sorghum was the biggest loser at $1.9 million. Corn losses amounted to $322,000, while cotton losses totaled $642,000. Citrus and sugarcane crops are being harvested now. Any losses to those crops won’t be known until next year.

“The losses we did suffer are due to many factors, including weather and pests, but these are normal in ag production, basically due to the inherent risk of growing crops,” Ribera said.

Floodwaters strained the area’s flood-control system after Hurricane Alex made landfall in northern Mexico on June 30, followed by a tropical depression and heavy rainfall in South Texas shortly thereafter.

At the time, corn and sorghum had been harvested to varying degrees, but the 86,000-acre, $44 million South Texas cotton crop was just being defoliated. None had been harvested and was highly susceptible to being completely ruined by rainfall and/or flooding, he said.

Fortunately, only 4.5 percent of both irrigated and dryland cotton was lost, Ribera said.

Flood control worked

The relatively minimal crop losses can be attributed to a flood-control system that worked, according to Dr. Ruben Saldana, a Texas AgriLife Extension Service administrator in Weslaco.

“Agriculture, and the entire Rio Grande Valley would have suffered Katrina-like flooding and losses had it not been for our levee system that had been recently shored up to withstand such waters,” Saldana said.

“And they were reinforced thanks to efforts by local officials and in Washington D.C. by our U.S congressman, Ruben Hinojosa, who insisted on combining a shored-up levee system with another project that was not very popular down here, the border wall.”

Saldana said Hinojosa’s efforts were politically risky, but the payoff was almost immediate.

“Had those levees not been reinforced, the only industry, the only people working right now would have been those digging us out of the massive flood that would have engulfed this entire area."

Despite a shortage of rainfall since, reservoir levels are high, irrigation water is plentiful and commodity prices are on the rise, Ribera said.

“Because of increased demand and low production in foreign countries due to weather problems, market prices for crops grown in the Rio Grande Valley are on an upswing and, barring any surprises from Mother Nature, 2011 should be a good year for our growers,” he said.