"Onion prices were the highest since the 1970s and watermelon prices were the highest in the last five years, but growers just weren't able to take advantage because yields were down one-third to a half of what they normally are," said Juan Anciso, vegetable specialist at the Texas A&M University System Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Weslaco.
"Cantaloupe yields were also down."
A lack of competition from Mexican cantaloupes kept market prices high early in the season, but then prices dropped considerably when California cantaloupes overwhelmed the market. Without special Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sanitation inspections, Mexican cantaloupes were banned from coming into the United States this year because of salmonella contamination problems last year in melons consumed in the Midwest that were traced to Mexico.
"What's surprising," said Anciso, "is that cantaloupe prices in Mexico went through the roof this season. They were selling wholesale for $24 for a box of 15. That's unheard of. We suspect that because Mexican growers knew they wouldn't be exporting to the United States, they didn't plant as much acreage as they normally do. Or, they could have had weather problems too.
“We just don't know. Some Mexican growers did meet the FDA requirements to export to the United States, but they chose to sell in Mexico where prices were higher."
Cantaloupe prices here early in the now-completed harvest were in the $9 to $11 range per 40-pound box, but then dropped to an average of $6.Valley growers did not sell their fruit to Mexico, Anciso said, probably because of their unfamiliarity with the Mexican market.
Lower than normal cantaloupe yields were blamed on fruit set damaged by cold temperatures and hail damage to crops in March. Based on similarly low-yielding watermelon acreage, a cold snap in early March that brought temperatures down to 36 degrees did more damage to that crop than originally thought, Anciso said.
"The weather at planting was great, but then when the plants were setting flowers, the cold snap hit. We thought that since it didn't freeze we were OK, but apparently it did damage the fruit set because watermelon yields just weren't there," he said.
Wholesale watermelon prices this season averaged 16 cents per pound for seedless watermelon and 10 cents per pound for seeded. Prices normally average 9 cents for seedless and 6 cents for seeded watermelon.
Heavy rains that washed away seeds and rotted emerging seedlings, also reducing yields, hit onions planted in October. Growers were not able to cash in on extremely high onion prices of $16 to $24 per 50-pound bag. Prices are normally in the $6 range.
Duane McDaniel, who farms between McAllen and Hidalgo just off 10th Street, said cold nighttime temperatures and high winds early in the season reduced fruit set in his watermelon and cantaloupe fields, keeping yields low.
"We're probably off one-third in yields," he said. "And the price decline mid-way through the season meant we left a lot of cantaloupes (unharvested) in the field."
Preliminary figures from the South Texas Onion and Melon Committee in Mission show Valley farmers sold almost 3 million 50-pound bags of onions grown on approximately 8,300 acres, or 347 bags per acre. Average production here is 480 bags per acre.
Almost 1.3 million 40-pound boxes of cantaloupes were sold from 3,800 acres, for an average of 334 boxes per acre. Average is 450 boxes per acre. Totals for watermelon production are not compiled.
Onions, cantaloupes and watermelons make up a significant portion of the Valley's entire fruit and vegetable production, valued at almost $178 million in 2002. Fruits and vegetables make up 41 percent of the total
Valley agricultural production valued at almost half a billion dollars annually and creating more than 18,500 full-time jobs.
Rod Santa Ana III is a writer for the Texas A&M University Extension Service.