The Rio Grande Valley Vegetable Research and Education Building, part of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco, was dedicated toward helping Texas regain its dominance of the vegetable production industry.
“Being a net importer of vegetables is not only unacceptable; it’s un-Texan,” said John Sharp, Texas A&M University System chancellor, who led a ribbon-cutting ceremony. “This facility will be dedicated to research that will help restore Texas to its former role as a top vegetable producer both locally and nationally.”
Built in 1994, the repurposed facility once housed honeybee research efforts of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Federal budget cuts in 2012 led to the closure of this and other facilities located adjacent to the center facilities.
For the past year, Texas A&M AgriLife has been remodeling the building to bring it up to university standards for conducting high-tech vegetable research, according to Dr. Juan Landivar, resident director of the center.
“This new facility will support the local and state vegetable industry by conducting research on vegetable breeding and genetics, cropping systems and vegetable marketing and economics,” he said.
Texas is now a net importer of vegetables but once ranked among the top vegetable producing states in the country, he said.
“A variety of reasons led to the decline of vegetable production in Texas,” Landivar said. “Among them were a lack of cultivars suited to local production conditions, pest and disease pressures and problems with production practices. These caused growers here and throughout the state to abandon vegetable production in favor of other crops. This facility will help turn that back around.”
The four counties that make up the Lower Rio Grande Valley currently produce a yearly vegetable crop worth some $60 million, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service statistics. The vegetables include watermelon, onions, leafy greens, cabbage, carrots and potatoes.
A survey of Texas fruit and vegetable producers helped Texas A&M AgriLife Research develop short- and long-term strategic plans to revitalize the state’s vegetable industry.
“Among other things, this survey found that common priorities for growers include pest and disease control and produce quality,” Landivar said. “But we also found that there is a strong demand among consumers for regionally and locally grown U.S. produce. So we have a huge opportunity.”
After the analyses conducted by AgriLife Research, a strategic plan for the Texas vegetable industry was developed based on a concept of having three vegetable programs located at Weslaco, Uvalde and College Station respectively, Landivar said.
“These centers will have multidisciplinary teams to address those critical issues affecting the vegetable industries, including marketing and natural resources management,” he said. “To implement the strategic plan, we’ll be hiring plant breeders at Weslaco and Uvalde, a plant molecular biologist and an entomologist in Weslaco, and a plant physiologist in Uvalde.”
AgriLife research and education resources will be invested to address the short- and long-term limitations facing producers to help increase vegetable production in Texas.
According to estimates, Texas imported and consumed more than 7.5 billion pounds of vegetables in 2014.
“As an example,” he said, “growing only 1 percent of the current tomato-production deficit of 23 million pounds with Texas-grown tomatoes would benefit the state’s economy by more than $26 million.”
Landivar said that by developing new vegetable cultivars at the new Weslaco facility that are better suited to South Texas growing conditions, both consumers and growers would benefit.
“Vegetable growers would see increased production and profitability,” he said. “Consumers would enjoy fresh, higher-quality vegetables produced locally, the local and state economies would improve and we’ll be less dependent on vegetable imports. And finally, consumers will see lower vegetable prices because long-distance trucking will be reduced, plus the overall carbon footprint of food production will be reduced.”
Research at the new facility in Weslaco will begin immediately, Landivar said.