(Sept. 24) MISSION, Texas — It appears south Texas citrus shippers will be able to send oranges and grapefruit to Arizona and California when groves dry out from recent rains — an uncertainty until recently because of Mexican fruit fly concerns.

The problem arose at a U.S. Department of Agriculture checkpoint at San Simon, Ariz., with the last citrus shipment from the Rio Grande Valley of the season, on April 29. Inspectors found live larvae in an orange at the checkpoint, and Arizona and California departments of agriculture banned Texas citrus shipments.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has worked with officials from all three states on a new Mexfly protocol in the offseason, and efforts to come to an agreement switched into high gear in September. About one-third of the grapefruit and oranges grown in Texas go to California; a 9.5 million 40-pound carton crop is expected this year.

“It’s a very important market for us,” said Mike Martin, vice president of sales for Rio Queen Citrus Inc., on Sept. 24. “We’ve been working on it all summer, but it didn’t get to the critical point until 10 days ago.”

Bob Vlasik, the Weslaco-based APHIS representative who’s working on the updated Mexfly protocol, said the agreement should be final before the season starts.

SEALING SHIPMENTS

“I would predict by the end of the week we should have an agreement,” Vlasik said Sept. 24.

Vlasik said Texas shippers have agreed to seal their shipments at the packinghouse and keep the trucks sealed until they reach Arizona inspection stations. Other measures call for inspections of fumigation rooms at packinghouses, increase bait spray efforts and cutting of more fruit during inspections.

“We’ve been doing this 20 years under this protocol, and we haven’t had any problems until the last two seasons, where we found fruit fly larvae in shipments,” Vlasik said.

RAIN BRINGS SIZE

Although mid-September can bring some minor picking of oranges, shippers were waiting until the week of Sept. 29 for the groves to dry out.

“Last Friday and Saturday we had anywhere from 8-10 inches,” said Lloyd Miller, sales manager at Healds Valley Farms Inc., Edinburg. “It was a good rain, but it put harvest back.”

Recent rains will increase the grapefruit size in coming months, but too much moisture in a short time has damaged the skin on some oranges, said John McClung, manager of the Texas Valley Citrus Committee,

“There’s so much rain, that we might see a reduction early in the season in the navel orange crop,” McClung said. “The fruit is getting so much moisture that we’re getting splitters.”

Don Wessel, sales manager at Texas Citrus Exchange, Edinburg, said it might not be until Oct. 6 before oranges are ready.