As drought lingers across state, water woes affect onion crops

03/01/2013 10:55:00 AM
David Mitchell

A-W Produce Co., grows onions on more than 400 acres in four different water districts in south Texas. When it was time to plant for the 2013 season, the Weslaco, Texas-based company faced strict water restrictions in all four districts.

“We planted late because of water issues,” general manager Chad Szutz said. “We had to purchase water from other districts.”

Still, Szutz said A-W’s crop still will be ready for harvest in March.

“We’ve had unseasonably warm weather,” Szutz said. “That keeps them growing fast.”

The Lone Star State is suffering through its worst drought since the 1950s.

Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon told state lawmakers in early February that Texas has received less than 70% of its typical rainfall in the past two years. Ninety percent of the state is dealing with abnormally dry conditions, and more than 20% is in extreme drought.

“The water situation is going to be difficult,” said Bret Erickson, manager of the South Texas Onion Committee and president and chief executive officer of the Texas International Produce Association, Mission.

“We’ve had so little moisture. We’ve had a mild, dry winter. The long-range models are that it won’t be any better this year.”

Erickson said some growers in Texas — where acreage is expected to be down 20% compared to 2012 — did not plant onions this season and sold their water rights.

The irrigation water that is available to growers in the Rio Grande Valley is less than ideal because the ongoing drought has steadily dropped water levels in the river, sources said.

“Salt content is high because water levels are low,” said Don Ed Holmes, president of The Onion House, Weslaco.

“Onions don’t care for salt. They don’t grow as well under those conditions. Quality is still fine, but yields aren’t as good as they would be with rain water or fresh water. We have neither. A good, strong rain would help these onions. If we don’t have a good rain to help the onions finish, it could have an adverse effect on sizes as we get close to maturity,” Holmes said.

Mike Martin, co-owner of River Queen LLC, Mission, Texas, said that the longer the drought lingers, the more salt becomes an issue.

“Salt from irrigation water is building up in the soil,” he said. “We’ve added and added it. As the water evaporates, what’s left behind is salt. We need rain to leach out the salt in the soil.”

To the north, growers in the Winter Garden district rely on ground water, rather than the river, for irrigation.

But J Allen Carnes, owner of Winter Garden Produce, Uvalde, Texas, said onion acreage is down in his area as well.

“The main factor has been drought,” he said. “A lot of growers aren’t big acreage veg guys. When they look at the water they have available and the price of the commodity markets, it’s an easy choice for them to plant another block of corn or cotton instead of onions. If they can lock in a price and get something back, they chose to go the safe route and grow on a contract basis.”

Carnes, however, said Winter Garden expects a good crop.

“Everything looks great now,” he said. “The onions are very healthy. We’ve had above-average temperatures.”

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