Texas retailers want locally grown produce, and Texas A&M AgriLife is working to make that happen.
Dr. Charlie Rush, Texas A&M AgriLife Research plant pathologist in Amarillo, talks about high-value vegetable crop production under high tunnels, particularly tomatoes, during an Aug. 10 field day. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)
Dr. Bill McCutchen, Texas A&M AgriLife Research executive associate director in College Station, and Joseph Bunting, United Supermarkets produce director from Lubbock, talked about the need for Texas-grown produce at a recent Summer Crops Field Day near Bushland.
“Studies show 75 percent of shoppers select their grocery store based on the produce and the quality and freshness of that section,” Bunting said. “Second is convenience and third is price, but quality and freshness are the main drivers to a grocery store.
“We look to buy local first, then domestic, and if we can’t get those, we look at importing,” he told the crowd. “Currently, we have someone who grows squash and turnips for us. Another producer grows pecans, watermelons and cantaloupes. Another grows russet potatoes for us.”
Bunting said he is excited to be talking with Dr. Charlie Rush, AgriLife Research plant pathologist in Amarillo, who is looking at high-value vegetable crop production under high tunnels, particularly tomatoes.
High tunnels are Quonset hut-type structures similar to greenhouses in appearance but lacking artificial heat. Rush’s research is aimed at aiding producers in growing tomatoes on a commercial basis and being a consistent source for area retailers.
“Our meeting was timely because we’ve had a lot of farmers come to us in the past couple of years saying their crop consultants have suggested they diversify into the produce area,” Bunting said. “We are very interested in that and have talked to farmers on what it would take to get them to grow produce. I think as we work together with the research projects going on here, we can get some more producers.”
This is only one step in AgriLife’s re-commitment to vegetables, McCutchen said.
“We recently examined what we were doing in research, and one of the things we were not doing well at Texas A&M was vegetables,” he said. “Back in the ‘80s when I was going to school at Texas A&M, we were one of the top three in the nation. We had the mild jalapeno, which built an entire industry.
“For some reason, we lost our way. But we are going to get our way back again, because we are making investments.”
McCutchen said about three years ago, Texas vegetable production was analyzed and it was determined the High Plains, South Plains, Overton, Wintergarden and Weslaco areas were prime growing regions.
“We import over 90 percent of our tomatoes to Texas,” he said. “What’s going on here? That’s got to change.”
McCutchen said after looking at the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities that face the vegetable growing industry in Texas, they determined Texas A&M has the faculty and staff capabilities with a good reputation and credibility.
“But the question was, were we trying to do more with less?” he said. “We knew we needed a critical mass for breeding new varieties. We got away from developing our own varieties. That’s where our opportunities lie – developing our own new varieties and doing our own research.”
Ramping up a program includes developing plant breeding and variety trials, cropping systems, integrated pest management, food safety and consumer and market research, McCutchen said. But it also meant getting the most efficient irrigation technology.
“If we are going to turn Amarillo and Lubbock into an oasis of vegetable crops, we are going to have to do this very efficiently with our water.”
McCutchen said the advanced breeding and variety trials have been started, and AgriLife has made a significant commitment over the past year and a half by hiring seven faculty and putting them strategically around the state, mostly in the Rio Grande Valley and Wintergarden area.
Some of the top priority crops include onions, watermelons, cabbage, spinach, cantaloupes, citrus and tomatoes, he said.
Both McCutchen and Bunting talked about the cost to transport tomatoes from California or Mexico and the issues of shelf life, which meant picking them when they are not as ripe.
“If you can grow this produce within a 100- to 200-mile radius of the distribution facilities, there’s an incredible opportunity here,” McCutchen said. “This is the Texas Department of Agriculture, United, H-E-B and others saying this, not just me.”
To build the program, McCutchen said it will be modeled after the wheat and small grains program within Texas A&M AgriLife.
“Texas A&M has the No. 1 wheat program in the country,” he said. “We worked with our producers, with checkoff funds and protecting our germplasm and intellectual property, and now that money goes back into the research through royalties and it feeds off itself.
“We are going to do the same thing with vegetables, but it won’t happen overnight. We are going to work with the growers, the vegetable association, retailers; we’re going to have a management team and will have a vegetable working group.”
He said the vegetable working group, much the same as the small grains group, will come up with good ideas and will talk with industry as well as retailers. Researchers will be offered seed grants to get projects started.
“They won’t be large grants, but they will begin to feed the development of new varieties. Then the funding we get from intellectual property and royalties will continue to generate funds and continue to grow the program. We’ve seen this strategy work in the wheat program, and we are excited about using it to renew our strength in the vegetable industry.”