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Growing in South Texas

Water and relationships are key
By Nancy Riggs




Red kale and fennel grow on plastic with drip irrigation, with green kale in the background alongside a cover crop for weed control.
Photos courtesy of Farm to Table unless otherwise noted.

In South Texas, near San Antonio, a region known as the Winter Garden produces food crops year-round. Since the advent of irrigation, the short grasses and mesquite trees have given way to vegetable production.

The first crops were Bermuda onions, spinach, beets and strawberries. Increased irrigation costs that came about during the Great Depression resulted in the loss of many small farms. However, the area is now home to a number of growers producing a wide variety of food crops on small and midsized farms.

The burgeoning city of San Antonio reduced the amount of land available for food production, so commercial growers moved out into the surrounding counties. While labor continues to be a concern, South Texas growers also face challenges when it comes to water availability and effective marketing of their crops.

Water availability

"Water is the major issue," said Dr. Juan Anciso, associate professor and extension vegetable specialist at Texas A&M University. "Ongoing drought has left many aquifers in really bad shape. While some of the aquifers are sufficient now, if the rains don't come, they won't be," he explained. Drought and the growing population have caused increased concern about water supplies. Environmentalists support restrictions on water use, while farmers and ranchers see water restrictions as a threat to their livelihoods.

In addition to municipal drinking water and agricultural use, water is used for recreational purposes and in fracking procedures for energy production. The Texas legislature began forming committees in its first month of session this year to address water concerns.



Jessica Cochrane, left, and Cora Lamar with a large cabbage head grown at Oak Hill Farms.

The South Texas growing region roughly encompasses three geographic areas. The two northern areas depend completely on wells supplied by aquifers; the southern segment obtains irrigation water drawn from the Rio Grande. The northern aquifers in the Lubbock area have been negatively affected by drought conditions. "Some of the spinach processors have talked about bringing their production down to the Lower Rio Grande Valley," Anciso said. The central area aquifers are currently providing sufficient irrigation water, but drought conditions could quickly deplete those aquifers.

Water is diverted for irrigation on the lower Rio Grande at two sites where dams are located. Anciso noted that the water levels at these two locations were above capacity in 2010. By 2012, without the anticipated rains, water levels were below what's necessary to provide the full acre-feet required for crop production.

While the use of drip irrigation is increasing in South Texas, most irrigation is still done with sprinkler and flood irrigation. Water is allocated based on the amount ofland in production. Conservation practices available to growers include watering alternating crop rows.

Farmers' markets are major outlets for the small growers in South Texas, and the city of San Antonio provides a ready venue to sell fresh produce. However, for midsized growers, marketing is a significant issue.



The use of drip irrigation is on the rise in South Texas.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Juan Anciso, TAMU Extension.

Oak Hill Farms

Cora Lamar grows vegetables with her daughter, Jessica Cochrane, and son, Chris Lamar, on the 170-acre Oak Hill Farms in Poteet, Texas, southeast of San Antonio. Lamar says the established relationships with her customers and suppliers are essential to her successful operation.

The farm's crops are diversified and include winter crops of cabbage, fennel, kale, spinach, beets, Brussels sprouts and leeks. Strawberries are a major spring crop, and summer crops consist of tomatoes, yellow squash and zucchini.

Most of the vegetables in South Texas are harvested by hand, and labor availability and costs continue to be a major concern. While added labor is essential for the harvesting of some crops, Lamar said, "We try to do everything we can ourselves. We try to get local labor for harvests, but we can't always get people to work." For Lamar and her family, labor unavailability mostly means putting in longer hours.

Lamar feels confident in her water supply from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer. "We've been growing vegetables on plastic for 25 years, and we use mostly drip irrigation, with field peas on sprinkler irrigation," she explained. Diesel pumps are used to get irrigation water to the fields. She noted that several years ago, growers were converting to electric, but then the cost of electricity increased.

Marketing

The majority of Lamar's produce goes to H-E-B, a large Texas food retailer based in San Antonio. "We're only about 45 minutes from H-E-B warehouses," she noted.

"Relationships are important in everything," Lamar said. She has supplied produce to H-E-B for more than 25 years. Some types of produce, such as tomatoes and strawberries, are packaged in the field and go directly to H-E-B as a prepackaged product. In addition, she sends a small amount of produce to Farm to Table (http://www.farmtotabletx.com) in Austin, which distributes fresh produce to restaurants.

Lamar also sells produce at Pearl Farmers Market (http://www.pearlfarmersmarket.com), which is promoted as a destination gathering place on the banks of the San Antonio River. The market includes eating establishments and provides education along with high-quality produce. Only growers operating within 150 miles of San Antonio are allowed to sell at this market.

Oak Hill Farms has been highlighted in both H-E-B and Farm to Table promotions citing the importance of fresh, local produce. The farm is also a featured grower at the annual Poteet Strawberry Festival (http://www.strawberryfestival.com), held each April.



A high number of South Texas growers use sprinkler irrigation on some crops and drip irrigation on other crops.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Juan Anciso, TAMU Extension.

Past, present and future

"We have changed a great deal in 25 years," Lamar said. She noted that they avoid chemicals as much as possible and use organic products extensively. Cover crops are used to control weeds.

"We're doing a lot with compost," she added. Lamar gets compost from Earthway and seed from several companies, including Champion and Seedway, which she purchases locally. Oak Hill Farms uses John Deere equipment from Tractor City, Pleasanton, Texas, and Case equipment from Tuttle Motor & Hardware in Poteet.

The family operation is important to Lamar, and she takes the challenges in stride. She said, "It's going to be a hungry world, and I want to leave this to my kids to keep it going." l

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer from Mount Zion, Ill.