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Orange growers grateful for chance to pick fruit early

Martin Castillo pushed away the branches and wiggled in until he disappeared into the orange tree where he could load up his bag with more than 200 pieces of the juicy fruit. In five hours Thursday afternoon, Castillo picked thousands of the navel oranges, all in a day’s work for the 25-year-old, three-year picking veteran from Edinburg.

Late last week he and a dozen citrus pickers and a few growers got a much anticipated start to the orange season as one choice grove north of Donna was ready for harvest. Growers with the Edinburg Citrus Association were the first in the Rio Grande Valley to start picking their juicy commodities off the tree and it’s one of the earliest starts to the citrus season in years.

“The fruit is looking good and we’re anticipating a good season,” said Paula Fouchek, marketing director for the Edinburg Citrus Association. “We’re starting to hear from buyers and once they know Texas citrus is starting the excitement starts building. People know there’s nothing better than Texas citrus.”

Because of South Texas’ sunny year-round climate, it is one of only three regions in the United States ripe for growing citrus. In particular, the Valley is famous for grapefruit, but growers still picked more than 45,000 tons of oranges for shipping last year.

Growers in Florida have already been harvesting their crops for weeks, but Valley farmers are excited to get an early jump this year because it can bring higher prices on the market. The Valley’s citrus industry brings $150 million to $200 million a year depending on the crop and market prices.

Local growers usually start harvesting around late September. “I’m surprised to hear they are picking already,” said Julian Saul, a citrus expert at the Texas A&M Agricultural Extension in Weslaco. The grapefruit harvest will start in mid-October, followed by Valencia oranges in mid-winter, Saul said. The picking season ends in May or June.

But starting in mid-September isn’t strange. In the 1960s and 1970s, orange harvests could start as early as the first of September. But changing weather and stricter standards for sugar content have pushed back the beginning of the season.

Many expect a strong year for Valley citrus. Heavy spring and summer rains have created plump, juicy oranges high in sugar content, said Ray Prewett, president of the Texas Citrus Mutual.

“Our crop is smaller, but the grade and size is going to be better with a higher percentage going to fresh,” Prewett said. “Fresh” is a term used to describe oranges sold whole and shipped to supermarkets. Oranges that go “fresh” have few aesthetic blemishes and fetch the highest prices from buyers. Other oranges are used for orange juice and go for cheaper.

By the end of the week the first shipment of Valley oranges should be headed to markets across the country, Fouchek said. First the fruit needs to spend a day or so in temperature-controlled, high-humidity rooms so they can turn orange. Then comes packing and shipping.

While the quality of this year’s crop is high, experts expect a smaller yield than last year, based on citrus cycles in the Valley. Last year growers had a strong season with 182,000 tons of fruit. This year Saul expects about 10 to 15 percent less fruit than last year. But the industry isn’t entirely dependent on high yields. Higher quality fruit also sells for more.

“The rains that we’ve had this year will be extremely helpful and our fruit will be more productive this year,” Prewett said.

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