Tale of a Big State with Big Determination
No Citrus to Start
Citrus is not native to the Americas. In 1540 Francisco Vazquez de Coronado was authorized by Spain to search for wealth and resources in his conquest of the southwestern US (known then as ‘New Spain’). He reported back to Spain his findings in a letter, one of the first detailed European accounts of the Southwest environment and culture. He writes, “The food which they eat in this county is corn, of which they have a great abundance…They make the best corn cakes I have ever seen anywhere…There are no kinds of fruit or fruit trees”. (1)
To control these lands and the native inhabitants, the Spanish built missions, military posts, towns and ranchos in the Southwest. The Order of Friars Minor, known as the Franciscans and founded by St Francis of Assisi in the 13th century, was given the responsibility of the missions. A total of 35 missions were built in Texas, the first in 1632 near the present-day San Angelo. It was abandoned six months later because of its remoteness from the Franciscan home base in New Mexico. Life was difficult and dangerous in the vast and frequently treacherous ‘New Spain’. For example, in 1690 the Mission San Francisco de los Tejas was built in Eastern Texas and soon encountered much adversity including small pox, droughts, native uprisings, French-Spanish conflicts, and the total destruction of the original building. However, with determination, the mission was finally relocated to its current location in the San Antonio River area in March, 1731 and renamed San Francisco de la Espada. A friary was built in 1745, and the church was completed in 1756. (2)
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The Citrus Mission
Although commercial cultivation of citrus in the Americas was not the motivation of the missions, the Citrus Industry in the United States was certainly a consequence. When and where citrus started in Texas is still questioned. History notes the King of Spain had granted seventy-five thousand acres on the Rio Grande to Macedonio Vela who called this ranch “Laguna Seca”. According to the story, the oldest orange trees resulted here from a visiting priest in 1873. The priest presented an orange to a boy on the ranch who planted the seven seeds of the fruit which grew to maturity; but evidence points to the existence of oranges much earlier. Robert E. Lee, in 1856 refers to orange trees in a letter written to his wife during a visit to the Brownsville area. In addition, other evidence indicates the first oranges were planted by mission fathers in 1824, a few south of the town of Mission, Texas.
The Citrus Vision
Regardless of date of the first citrus planted, the consequence of a Citrus Industry would not have reached fruition without the foresight and determination of a few. In Texas, John H. Shary is credited as the true pioneer of the citrus industry. In 1904, the first railroad reached the Rio Grande Valley (the citrus production region of Texas). Shary, a successful businessman with a large cotton production business in the Corpus Christi area saw the potential for citrus production. He, with financial help from Jesse H. Jones, began buying land, installing irrigation systems, and planting orange and grapefruit groves. In 1923 Shary built the first commercial citrus packinghouse in the area. Mr. Shary is considered the “Father of the Texas Citrus Industry”. Shary is also credited with the development of a system of canals and lift stations to irrigate his groves as well as the groves of others. His creative methods for this extensive irrigation system undoubtedly allowed the propagation of the citrus industry in the Rio Grande Valley.
Texas is a Big State
To mentally and physically grasp the size of Texas, one only needs to drive across the state. If a road-trip is not in the cards then here are a few statistics and information that capture the scope of Texas:
The population of Texas is about the same as Saudi Arabia – the 46th largest country in the world– at approximately 26 million people. (3)
The Gross Domestic Product(GDP) of Texas at $1.14 billion dollars is slightly less than that of Russia. (3)
The King Ranch in Texas is bigger than the state of Rhode Island.
More wool comes from the state of Texas than any other state in the United States.
Texas boasts the nation's largest herd of whitetail deer.
Austin is considered the live music capital of the world.
The first word spoken from the moon on July 20, 1969 was Houston.
The state's cattle population is estimated to be near 16 million.
More land is farmed in Texas than in any other state.
Laredo is the world's largest inland port.
More species of bats live in Texas than in any other part of the United States.
Amarillo has the world's largest helium well.
Brazoria County has more species of birds than any other comparable area in North America.
The Aransas Wildlife Refuge is the winter home of North America's only remaining flock of whooping cranes. (4)
By the end of this year, Texas’ oil production could exceed the output of every OPEC country but Saudi Arabia. (5)
No doubt Texas is a big state for production of just about everything they do, unless you discuss the Citrus Industry.
As per the Texas Almanac, “Texas is at the crossroads of five major physiographic regions of North America: the Gulf Coastal Plain; the Great Plains; the interior lowlands; the Rocky Mountain System; and the Great basin and Range Providence.” What does all that mean? Within all the 268,820 square miles of land in the state of Texas, only about 40 square miles, at the very southeastern tip of the state, known as the Rio Grande Valley, or the ‘Valley’ to Texans provide a suitable climate with enough water to sustain citrus, if, it doesn’t freeze.
Texas is a Big State with BIG FREEZES
Citrus is a sub-tropical fruit and neither the fruit nor the tree can withstand freezing temperatures for very long. How-low of a temperature and how-long the temperature duration can be tolerated by citrus depends on several factors including the variety of citrus, the ‘root-stock’ on which the variety has been grafted, the daily lowest temperature and duration in conjunction with the corresponding warmest temperature and duration, the health and vigor of the tree, as well as the growth cycle of the season. Although Florida and California have withstood many freezes, the growing regions of these two largest citrus production states in the USA are spread over many miles and a freeze usually only affects some portion of the growing region. In Texas, that growing region is limited to the ‘Valley’ and a freeze affects the entire citrus production area.
Not if, But When Texas FREEZES –
Not much horticultural attention was given to Texas citrus trees and their fruits prior to Shary’s commercial citrus developments of the early 1900’s. Although some of the historical weather records are not as precisely recorded as today, Richard Travis, an avid Texan horticulturist has researched and documented, in detail, the freezes of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The first two severe freezes in the Valley’s recorded history came in 1852 and 1873. His data collection also indicates additional freezes of less severity in 1850, 1867, 1870, and 1875. His research describes the 1880’s as ‘brutally’ cold for Texas in general, and during this decade South Texas experienced major freezes in 1880-81, 1886, 1888, and just avoided a fourth major cold out-break in 1883 which affected the rest of the state.
The region had a small break until the winter of 1894-95 when back-to-back freezes hit the south, devastating the Florida citrus belt and leaving a record of the greatest (and the last) snowfall of five-inches at Brownsville, Texas on the Lower Rio Grande. But 1899 was the big one! Travis’s account reads, “It was perhaps only fitting that the 19th century close out with the worst cold spell ever known to Texas. The infamous freeze of February 11-13, 1899, arrived almost four years to the day after the 1895 snowstorm. Though not quite the longest freeze ever known, it did bring two nights of unbelievably intense cold to the entire state and much of the nation. Low temperature records were shattered throughout much of the United States, many of which still stand today. It was probably the single worst Arctic outbreak to ever affect the United States.” (7)
Although two brief freezes occurred in 1905 and 1911 with minimums of 22º and 21º respectively the daylight hours were warm and the region was spared-the Texas citrus industry was off and running. The 1911 Texas Almanac wrote:
The possibilities of the coast country of Texas as a producer of sub-tropical fruits have never been fully exploited. Although there are citrus fruit trees…that have borne fruit regularly for more than thirty years, only within the last decade has the industry developed…Horticulturists have felt their way carefully and slowly. They have guarded against announcements of success until they were satisfied that their experiments and the results thereof were not due to unusual conditions. They have recognized that the public is skeptical and must be shown. Although oranges have withstood coast country conditions…it took the cold snap of early January, 1911 to satisfy many that an orange had been produced that was hardy enough to be grown with success in Texas.
Although both oranges and grapefruit were planted in the Valley, it was the Texas grapefruit that became the shining star of the industry. Grapefruit plantings adapted well to the growing conditions of the Valley and the pink and red flesh varieties have always demanded a premium. The bearing acreage increased from 10,400 acres in 1928 to 112,900 acres in 1946. In the 1946-47 season, Texas growers sold 23 million boxes of grapefruit and 5 million boxes of oranges. With a value of $30 million dollars, citrus accounted for over one-third of the total farm income of the Rio Grande Valley. And then it froze.
As researched and reported by Travis, “On January 30, 1949, a strong cold front blew through Texas bringing snow and 0° readings to central Texas and a fairly hard freeze to the Valley. Temperatures in Brownsville fell to 23°F for an hour during the cold spell, with a number of hours in the mid-twenties. Stations to the west were a little colder. The coast was the place to be during this freeze -- temperatures did not go below 26°F at Port Isabel. Damage was more severe than the temperatures might indicate since many plants were not especially dormant. Still, most of the citrus trees managed to recover and it looked like the industry would be back to normal in a couple of years. The extreme mildness of the 1949-1950 winter must have caused further optimism.”
The optimism was short lived. “In December, 1950, a relatively light freeze hit the Valley, causing temporary damage to some tender plants. The weather then warmed and stayed mild until January 30, 1951. Citrus trees which were slightly injured in the December freeze began to regrow in the warm weather. Then, two years to the day after the '49 freeze, the worst cold wave since 1899 descended in the Valley, bringing two full afternoons below freezing. Most Valley cities recorded lows around 20°. Seventy-five percent of the citrus trees were completely destroyed -- many were actively growing [as opposed to ‘dormant’ winter suspension] when the freeze hit.”
After almost an eleven year break, another long and severe freeze hit the Valley. Brownsville saw 19oF, a brief but harsh 10oF in Rio Grande City, and McAllen recorded the lowest ever temperature of 17ºF. Although the crops were wiped out, the trees sustained less damage from their more dormant winter cycle of growth.
After another break of almost twenty-one years, this Christmas freeze destroyed 70% of the season’s crop and reduced the rebounded 69,200 acres to about 22,000. No citrus was produced in the 1984-85 season as a result and production remained severely reduced in the 1985-86 season.
By the winter of 1989, replanting of citrus in the Rio Grande Valley was well underway with 36,000 acres again in production. But then, six years later, almost to the day, the next “100 year freeze” hit the valley. Again, the acreage was reduced to about 12,000. This freeze was second only to the freeze of 1899, which some refer to as a 200-500 year freeze.
Determination or a Short Memory?
As of current- Spring of 2014- the Rio Grande Valley has not experienced another freeze. After the devastation of 1989, the Valley rebounded to about 35,000 acres in the 1990’s a portion of which succumbed to another farming threat-urbanization and has thus been reduced to about 22,000 acres. Of this acreage, about half now belongs to a California agricultural company who, in 2012, purchased the two largest Texas citrus grower and shipping operations.
Do Numbers Lie?
Travis, a math professor by trade, has concluded that by using the data of 150 years of weather records some sort of statistical idea of freeze probability might be calculated. His analysis concludes the most destructive cold waves arrive approximately every 15 years. Too, a very detailed and lengthy assessment by a cohort of ag economists at Texas A&M was written in 2001 of the financial viability of investment in Texas grapefruit groves. They concluded that, “it is probable that freezes will occur more than once during the 25-year productive life of a grove”. (8) The last Texas freeze was in 1989, twenty-five years ago.
(1) The Spanish Borderlands. Mintz, S., & McNeil, S. (2013). Digital History. Retrieved 05-25-14 from http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu.
(2) The Spanish Missions in Texas. Texas Almanac 2006–2007.
(3) The Economist. Daily Blog 2011
(4) Texas fast facts and Trivia
(6) Shary, John Harry. Handbook of Texas Online.
(7) A history of Sever Freezes in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Part II 1895-1962. Richard Travis. Published in Palm Society of South Texas quarterly bulletin – Spring 1997.
(8) An Ex Ante Assessment of Investments in Texas Grapefruit under Uncertainty. Elmer, Nicole A.. et al. Published in the Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics. December 2001.