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Texas facing more than $600M in agricultural losses after February winter freeze

Madlin Mekelburg
Austin American-Statesman

Texas is facing more than $600 million in agricultural losses from the deadly Texas freeze last month, and experts told a Texas House committee Thursday it could take as long as five years for some segments of the industry to fully recover.

When subfreezing temperatures and snow blanketed much of the state last month and crippled the state’s electric grid, cattle died as stock tanks froze while feed production and transport was delayed by icy conditions. Thousands of acres of citrus trees were lost, while grapefruit and oranges awaiting harvest were destroyed. Greenhouses collapsed under the weight of snow and ice, damaging plants growing inside. Dairy producers were forced to dump $20 million worth of milk.

“We called this one the ‘St. Valentine’s Massacre,’” said Dale Murden, president of Texas Citrus Mutual, a trade association representing Texas citrus growers in the Rio Grande Valley.

Fourth-generation cattle rancher, Deydra Steans, center, speaks last month with her neighbors, fellow ranchers Mark Stank, left, and Reona and Jerry Swain, right, about the February storms at their Luling ranches. It could be five years before some segments of the Texas agricultural industry fully recover from the freeze, experts told state lawmakers Thursday.

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Murden joined other industry representatives and farmers at the Capitol, as members of the Texas House Committee on Agriculture and Livestock worked to assess the full impact of the storms on the agricultural industry and determine how the state can help in recovery efforts.

The winter weather was the final blow after a tough year for Texas farmers that started with a global pandemic and included extreme drought conditions and a midsummer hurricane.

“The issue that made the Valentine’s Day freeze so much worse is the collection of superseding disasters Texas growers have faced,” said Dante Galeazzi, president and chief executive of the Texas International Produce Association. “Any single disaster is hard to recover from, but four such events in 12 months makes recovery nearly impossible for some.”

A group of cattle feed at S3 Legacy Ranch, owned and operated by Deydra Steans and her father, Elvin, in Luling, a week after last month's winter storms. They lost seven cows and a calf during the freeze.

Economic losses

Mark Waller, associate head of Texas A&M University’s Department of Agricultural Economics, said the citrus industry saw the largest economic losses from the storm, according to a preliminary estimate.

Citrus growers experienced $230 million in losses, compared with livestock losses estimated at $228 million and vegetable losses at $150 million.

“These are all preliminary numbers, and we assume they will probably end up being larger,” Waller said. “When you get things like citrus and sugar cane that are perennial crops and multiyear, it is going to take a little while to really figure out the extent of those damages.”

Depending on the crop, it could take years for a plant to recover from damage sustained during the freeze.

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Ryan Skrobarczyk, director of legislative and regulatory affairs for the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association, said growers in his association reported losses when electric power was cut at greenhouses and propane trucks could not reach greenhouses.

“The reality of growing crops in our industry is that it takes many years to mature before it is ready to be harvested or sent to a retail facility,” Skrobarczyk said. “Plants that were frozen a few weeks ago cannot simply be replanted for this spring. A Tyler rosebush does not happen overnight. A live oak, crape myrtle or mountain laurel takes years to grow for market.

“Looking forward, the impact of the winter storm will be felt across our industry throughout the state for the next four to five years.”

Blueberry growers in the state experienced 80% to 90% crop losses during the storm, plus some damage to plants, according to Duane Willis, president of the Texas Blueberry Marketing Association.

“We’ll go through there and prune those broken limbs and straighten those plants back up, and within two years our plants will be producing their previous level,” he said. 

Hat and Heart Farm in Fredericksburg has been family-operated for more than 50 years. The February winter storms destroyed two-thirds of its winter crop.

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Texas is one of three winter growing regions in the country for vegetables, according to Galeazzi. There were between six and nine weeks left in the season for vegetable growers, depending on the crop.

“Can growers replant this crop? The short answer is no,” Galeazzi said. “There’s simply not enough time. By the middle of April, we will begin to encounter 90- to 100-degree days on the regular. These conditions, along with humidity and rain, are too stressful for immature plants, especially for the commercial-sized operations.”

Federal and state aid

Russell Boening, president of the Texas Farm Bureau, said federal and state assistance programs might not be sufficient, as some do not cover the specific circumstances that affected the entire agriculture industry during the freeze.

Plus, the diversity of the industry means that some growers are eligible for certain recovery mechanisms while others are not.

Eddie Treviño, acting executive director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency in Texas, described disaster assistance programs available to growers in the state. These programs aid those who experienced livestock deaths or feed and grazing losses.

There are also federal programs, accessible for Texas farmers through Treviño’s state office, that provide cost-share assistance for orchard owners and assistance programs for farmers who suffered crop losses.

Katherine Tanner, co-owner of Hat and Heart Farm in Fredericksburg, holds rotting kale on Feb. 24. "Cabbage is what we're really sick about," Tanner said. The crop needed about another week before she could harvest it.

But many industry representatives said changes need to be made by state lawmakers to ease recovery.

Murden and Galeazzi stressed the need to expand COVID-19 vaccinations to the agricultural workforce to expand production and protect workers. Currently, coronavirus vaccines are limited to people 50 or older, people with certain health conditions, health care workers, first responders and teachers.

Galeazzi also suggested that lawmakers change state regulations for commercial trucking to make it easier to deliver more goods before and after an extreme weather event. For a truck to transport more weight than is allowed, it requires oversize and overweight permitting.

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During a disaster, Gov. Greg Abbott can waive those permitting requirements and let commercial trucks carry more goods. Abbott issued such a waiver last March, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Galeazzi said the state should create an “automated trigger” that suspends weight limits for the days preceding and after a natural disaster.

“Those days tend to be a mad rush to get as much of the crop as possible,” he said, noting the requirement for a gubernatorial waiver that is currently in place. “Our requests are not often handled quickly and an automated trigger would save a tremendous amount of time and work.”

Dan Hunter, Texas Department of Agriculture assistant commissioner for water and rural affairs, said he plans to explore the idea of an automated trigger for weight exemptions at the department.

“We think it is a very good idea,” he said.

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