WESLACO, RGV – Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp is slated to make his third major announcement in the Rio Grande Valley within the last month.

In September, Sharp visited McAllen to provide details on a new Texas A&M University campus in McAllen and visited Weslaco launched Texas A&M AgriLife’s Healthy South Texas Initiative.  Sharp will be back in Weslaco on Thursday to unveil AgriLife’s new Texas Vegetable Strategic Plan and dedicate the new Rio Grande Valley Vegetable Research and Education Building.

Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp.
Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp.

“This is a new investment by Texas A&M to research and develop vegetable varieties suited to Rio Grande Valley growing conditions,” said A&M AgriLife communications specialist Rod Santa Ana. “The idea is to help the state of Texas regain its glory days of being among the nation’s top vegetable-producing states in the country.

Santa Ana pointed out that vegetable production has dropped so much over the years that Texas is now a net importer of vegetables. “Some of us can recall when vegetable packing sheds lined Business 83 along the railroad tracks from Brownsville to Mission,” he said.

Santa Ana said many advantages that will come from AgriLife’s new efforts in the Valley. “Consumers will get healthier and less-expensive and tastier vegetables will be produced here in the area. For example, one of the reasons that tomatoes don’t taste as good as they used to is because they are now grown outside the country and must be picked green to avoid rotting during shipping.”

Santa Ana said that by producing locally, vegetables can be allowed to mature on the vine longer. “The facility will also help our economy as farmers grow more vegetables and we can become less dependent on vegetable imports.”

Santa Ana added that in 2014, the total value of vegetable production in Texas was estimated at $312.44 million, with an economic impact on the state’s economy of $493.46 million. The main vegetable crops produced in the Rio Grande Valley, he said, are watermelons, onions, leafy greens, cabbages, carrots, and potatoes.

The ceremony starts at 9:30 a.m. at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Weslaco, 2415 E. Highway 83. It’s free, open to everybody and tours of the new high-tech facility will be available.

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service now over 100 years old

The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service celebrated its 100th Anniversary a couple of years ago. “In 1914, the U.S. Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act, which provided the structure for each state to set up agricultural extension services to deliver agricultural research findings to farmers,” Barbara Storz, an AgriLife Extension horticulturist in Hidalgo County, explained at the time. “Then in 1915 the state of Texas organized the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, now named the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.” Storm said the idea was for AgriLife Extension to extend to the public the scientific information being generated by the land-grant institution known then as the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station. It is now named Texas A&M AgriLife Research.

Late last month, Chancellor Sharp announced that in addition to helping farmers grow better crops and ranchers raise healthier livestock, the AgriLife Extension Service would, in collaboration with other agencies in the A&M system, help educate families on eating more nutritious foods. The project is called Healthy South Texas. “On any given day in Hidalgo County, for instance, you may have a bunch of agriculture extension agents meeting with a couple of hundred farmers to show them how to grow better crops. That same day and same night you may have a different group of people from the same office meeting with 200 families to show them how to grow healthier kids,” Sharp said.

To coincide with Thursday’s visit of Chancellor Sharp, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service issued a synopsis of its Texas Vegetable Strategic Plan. The plan is to develop technologies, generate knowledge, and provide training to advance and conduct economical and sustainable farming practices in the region. It will support the local and state vegetable industry in vegetable breeding and genetics, cropping systems, and vegetable marketing and economics.

The vision is to “become a leader and recognized innovator in the development of germplasm technology and information to support the vegetable industry of the Rio Grande Valley, the state of Texas, and beyond.” The mission is to “develop and evaluate vegetable cultivars of economic importance to the region and the state, develop cropping systems to make these cultivars successful in our fields, and disseminate information relevant to stakeholders in the Rio Grande Valley and the Texas vegetable industry.”

The synopsis lists the projected impacts:

• Vegetable growers will sustain and increase production and profitability by growing heat-tolerant, disease-resistant, high-yielding, flavorful cultivars in Texas.
• Consumers will benefit from improvements in locally produced, higher-quality, and diverse fresh-market vegetables.
• Increased production and consumption of Texas-grown vegetables will improve the local economy by reducing vegetable imports.
• Reducing dependence on vegetable imports and relying on more diverse local and regional sources of produce will reduce fluctuations in price and availability associated with drought and other severe weather events, as well as international port delays.
• Consumers will see lower vegetable prices, and reducing long-distance trucking of fresh produce will reduce the overall carbon footprint of food production.

Here is the synopsis:

Texas once grew as many acres of fresh vegetables as the leading vegetable-producing states. But in recent years, the lack of adequate cultivars, pest and disease pressures, and problems with production practices caused farmers to largely abandon vegetable production in favor of other crops. As a result, Texas is now a net importer of vegetables. According to estimates, Texas imported and consumed more than 7.5 billion pounds of vegetables in 2014.

AgriLife Research and Extension and their stakeholders have been developing short- and long-term strategic plans to revitalize vegetable production in Texas. They asked 80 Texas vegetable and fruit producers and 63 Texas A&M AgriLife personnel to conduct a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis of vegetable production in the state. Identified needs included pest and disease control and produce quality. The group identified the demand for regionally and locally grown U.S. produce as a strength. They defined technological advancements and long-term applied research, along with education and outreach, as areas of opportunity.

The Texas Vegetable Strategic Plan was created after the SWOT analysis was completed. The strategic plan is based on the concept of three vegetable centers of excellence: at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Centers at Weslaco and Uvalde and at Texas A&M University in College Station (in partnership with AgriLife Research and AgriLife Extension).

The vegetable centers will take advantage of current and future program strengths. These strengths include their location in regions that support large vegetable-producing acreage and extensive packing and shipping facilities. The centers will have multidisciplinary teams to address critical issues affecting the vegetable industries, including marketing and natural resources management.

To implement the strategic plan, Texas A&M AgriLife will provide funding to address gaps in research capabilities. This includes hiring plant breeders at Weslaco and Uvalde, a plant molecular biologist at Weslaco, a plant physiologist at Uvalde, and an entomologist at Weslaco.

The plan’s goal is to increase the investment of AgriLife Research and Extension resources to address the short- and long-term limitations facing producers and, as a result, to increase vegetable production in Texas.

Here is the itinerary for Thursday’s dedication of the Rio Grande Valley Vegetable Research and Education Building:

9:30 AM – Speeches from: Mark Hussey, Vice Chancellor and Dean for Agriculture and Life Sciences (Master of Ceremonies), John Sharp, Chancellor, The Texas A&M University System, Craig Nessler, Director, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, Doug Steele, Director, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Steve Tallant, President, Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Jimmy Bassetti, President, J&D Produce, Hugh Topper, Vice President, HEB Vegetable Marketing Division, and Juan Landivar, Resident Director, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco.
11:00 AM – Ribbon Cutting and Photos, Rio Grande Valley Vegetable Research and Education Building,
11:15 AM – Tour of the Rio Grande Valley Vegetable Research and Education Building, Carlos Avila, Assistant Professor, Texas A&M AgriLife Research
11:45 AM – Lunch, Tent on the east side of the Rio Grande Valley Vegetable Research and Education Building.