Through the roof” is how experts are describing the record prices growers in the Rio Grande Valley are getting for their winter vegetable harvests this year.

Weather-related problems in other vegetable-producing regions have reduced supplies, raised market prices and provided a much-needed boon to producers in South Texas, according to Juan Anciso, a Texas Cooperative Extension vegetable specialist at the Texas A&M University System Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Weslaco.

“Because of last month's devastating freeze in California, we're seeing very strong markets and especially high prices for our celery, cabbage and carrots,” Anciso said. “The market is always volatile, but we're seeing three and four times normal prices.”

A 40-pound box of celery, which usually fetches growers $6 to $9, is selling for $38 to $40 per box, Anciso said.

A 50-pound box of cabbage, which last year brought growers $5.50 to $6 depending on quality and size, is bringing as much as $10 to $15. Chinese cabbage, used in stir-fries and other ethnic cuisines, is fetching as much as $20 to $30 for a 50-pound box, he said.

“With Chinese cabbage selling at that price, a grower with optimal conditions and no rejects could get up to $10,000 per acre,” Anciso said.

Winter vegetables from the Rio Grande Valley are sent by refrigerated trucks to markets and distribution points in Houston, Dallas and St. Louis, and as far away as Chicago, New York and Canada.

Vegetables make up about a third of the Valley's agricultural industry, with a regional gross value of about $160 million annually, according to Extension figures.

A hard freeze in mid-January dipped temperatures into the teens for several days throughout California's growing regions, causing an estimated $1 billion loss to the state's winter vegetable crop, according to the state's agriculture department Web site.

As a result, higher vegetable prices are expected eventually to be passed on to consumers at varying degrees, Anciso said.

Storage supplies

He said the vegetable market should remain strong once Rio Grande Valley onions are harvested in April. Low supplies of storage onions, refrigerated and held over from last year's harvest, throughout the country, plus weather-related problems south of the border, could bring record prices.

“Heavy rains and disease problems in Peru and Mexico, coupled with reduced acreage of onions in both Mexico and Texas, have been sending prices through the roof for white and yellow onions,” said Andre Escobar, a produce salesman at Duda Farm Fresh Foods in McAllen.

“Prices for onions last year were so low,” Escobar said, “growers lost a lot of money and, as a result, they planted fewer acres this year. Last year growers here in the Valley planted 13,600 acres, but only 9,500 acres this year. So all those conditions are pushing prices up.”

The only downside to the Valley's onion crop is that it will be harvested later than usual, Escobar said.

“By now, Mexican onion imports would be ‘blowing and going,’ but it's been slow because of their bad weather,” he said. “The Valley's onion harvest usually gets started March 10, but this year we're looking at April 10 because heavy rains in October when we were planting delayed the crop.”

Despite the slow start, Anciso said California, which usually starts harvesting and shipping its onions at the tail end of the Valley's onion harvest and depresses prices, would not be a factor this year.

“Stored onions are now selling for much higher than normal, as much as $24 for jumbo yellows from Idaho and Oregon, and Mexican onions are selling for as much as $30 for a 40-pound box, so once Valley onions start selling, we could see record prices,” Anciso said.

‘Market unbelievable’

Tommy Jendrusch, who is currently harvesting his carrot and celery fields east of McAllen, is seeing high prices.

“The carrot market right now is unbelievable,” he said. “A 50-pound bag is selling for as much as $18, compared to the $6.50 or $7 we normally get.” Imports usually drive down prices for his crops, but Mexican and Canadian imports are light this year, Jendrusch said.

“It's a shame growers in other areas are suffering, but that's helping us get better prices and it's just how this game is played,” he said.

Ray Prewett, executive vice president of the Texas Vegetable Association, a commodity organization based in Mission, agreed with Jendrusch, saying Valley growers were overdue for a bright market.

“We hate to see growers in California and elsewhere suffer,” he said, “but that's how the agriculture business works. We need these price increases to make up for stagnant prices we've been seeing for the past several years. We know the situation sometime in the future will be reversed, when California growers will be back and we'll be having problems, but for now our growers need all the help they can get.”