Winter storm causes over $600 million in ag losses

By Jennifer Whitlock

Citrus. Cattle. Vegetables. Winter Storm Uri left virtually no aspect of Texas agriculture untouched, with losses by individual farmers and ranchers across the Lone Star State ranging from mild to extreme.

Cumulatively, the damage to Texas agriculture totals at least $600 million, with a final number likely coming in much higher, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service economists. And the repercussions will last for years.

“A large number of Texas farmers, ranchers and others involved in commercial agriculture and agricultural production were seriously affected by Winter Storm Uri,” Dr. Jeff Hyde, AgriLife Extension director at Bryan-College Station, said. “Freezing temperatures and ice killed or harmed many of their crops and livestock, as well as causing financial hardships and operational setbacks. And the residual costs from the disaster could plague many producers for years to come.”
Citrus crops in the Rio Grande Valley were hit the hardest, with initial losses of at least $230 million reported.

Rio Grande Valley citrus growers lost nearly all the Valencia orange crop to the late winter freeze, said AgriLife Extension Economist Dr. Luis Ribera.. He noted if the storm had come any earlier, the damage to Texas citrus would have been much worse. But since grapefruit harvest was underway, farmers lost about 60 percent instead of the entire crop.

The $230 million figure includes losses from this year’s crop but also includes damage to blooms and buds that were the start of next year’s crop, Ribera explained. It does not include the cost of citrus trees that die or are so badly damaged they have to be replaced.

“If they must be replaced, it will be several years before those new citrus trees are able to bear fruit, so the losses could be much more,” Ribera said.

Lemon and lime orchards suffered more damage due to the trees’ lower cold hardiness, noted AgriLife Horticulturalist Juan Anciso. Nearly 200 acres of in South Texas were completely destroyed and will have to be replanted, wiping out the potential for lemon or lime harvest for at least three to five years.

Vegetable farmers in the Rio Grande Valley and Winter Garden are reeling from Winter Storm Uri’s effects, as well, with losses pegged at about $150 million in the produce sector.

Cool-season crops, including leafy greens, beets, cabbage, celery and broccoli, were lost. So were warm-season crops intended for early harvest like potatoes and melons.

“The main vegetable crop damage we saw was to onions, then leafy greens, including spinach, collard greens and kale, and watermelons. Working with the Texas International Produce Association, we estimated a loss of more than $42 million in sales of onions, more than $27 million in sales of leafy greens, more than $20 million in sales of watermelons and more than $15 million in sales of cabbage,” Dr. Samuel Zapata, an AgriLife economist based out of Weslaco, said. “We also estimated at least another $42 million in additional vegetable and herb sales losses for these large vegetable crop-producing areas. Of course, producers lost vegetable crops in other areas of the state as well, so we determined the $150 million figure to be a minimum.”

Zapata noted another prominent Rio Grande Valley crop, sugarcane, is facing losses, but it’s too early to tell how much damage was done to next year’s crop.

Nearly all the cane plants were destroyed by the freezing temperatures, forcing farmers to replant or face a drop in yields.

Ranchers are suffering impacts of the extreme cold weather, too. The livestock sector in Texas, which includes cattle, sheep and goats and poultry, is expected to have at least $228 million in related losses.

Poultry losses encompass loss of birds, damage to housing facilities and increased heating costs, according to AgriLife Livestock Economist Dr. David Anderson.

“Beef cattle losses include estimated value of death losses, additional feed use, lost winter small grain grazing, lost weights and feed efficiency in feedlots, and losses due to delayed marketing,” he said. “Sheep and goat losses include estimated death losses, and dairy losses include cattle death loss, lost milk production and the value of milk dumped due to transportation problems and processing delays.”

Additional costs for extra feed, fuel or electricity to run heaters to keep livestock warm and physical damages to the operation were included in estimates, added Amarillo AgriLife Economist Dr. Justin Benavidez.

“A rancher will typically feed two or more round bales per cow during winter. So, if hay isn’t available, they still have to purchase some type of supplemental feed, and all this is costly,” Benavidez said.

Because the storm hit during spring calving and lambing season, many newborn animals were lost. Benavidez noted losses would have been far worse if ranchers had not acted quickly and rescued as many of those newborns as possible.

But these losses will extend past just the current livestock generation, he said. The loss of an animal this year impacts subsequent herd size by taking out potential replacement animals.

Losses to the greenhouse and nursery sector are expected to be high from Winter Storm Uri.

Damage to landscape plants, shrubs and trees was severe, noted Dr. Marco Palma, horticultural marketing expert in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M University. He said AgriLife and the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association are still awaiting responses from a statewide survey before providing any preliminary estimates.

“It will take some weeks before we get a full picture of the immediate losses, but they will easily be in the tens of millions and probably in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” Palma said. “The green industry will experience increased labor, fertilizer and other costs as part of the price of replacing the plant material that was lost during the winter storm.”

Damages to dairy, fruit and nut orchards, vineyards, grazing crops and major commodity crops like corn and wheat are still being tallied.

AgriLife has compiled data from a variety of sources including farmers, ranchers and other commercial producers, as well as others involved in or supporting production agriculture. Dr. Mark Waller, associate head of Texas A&M University’s Department of Agricultural Economics, said the agency is still working to collect information on damages and losses.

“There are still many as yet unknown and lingering effects of Winter Storm Uri,” he said. “What we can say is these figures are conservative, and we expect more losses as a long-term effect of this disaster.”