Much like the cartoon character Popeye would do after downing a can of leafy greens, the Texas spinach industry has come back from the 2005 food sfaety scare pumped up and feeling strong.

“While overall spinach production is down, we’re still encouraged about our industry as a whole,” says Ed Ritchie, president of the Winter Garden Spinach Producers Board. “There’s strong consumer demand for our product. We also feel that with the way the economy is now, fewer people will be eating out and more will be eating at home. That should increase sales.”

The Winter Garden area southwest of San Antonio is responsible for 90 percent of the state's spinach crop, according to a Texas A&M University study.

Statewide, about 3,200 acres are planted in spinach, down 20 percent from 2006. Two-thirds goes to processing whereas one-third goes fresh.

“Part of that reduction in acreage was a result of the E. coli scare a few years ago,” says Ritchie, also a spinach producer and shipper. “And part is due to farmers choosing to grow alternative row crops, especially grain crops, because right now these crops are getting higher revenues.”

Between 2002 and 2004, Texas production represented about 8 percent of the nation's total spinach crop, according to National Agricultural Statistics Service figures. Spinach grown for processing accounted for about one-fifth of the nation's processed spinach.

But the market for fresh spinach appears to be strengthening, says Jose Pena, Texas AgriLife Extension Service economist in Uvalde.

“After a slight decline in 2005 and 2006, the demand for fresh vegetables is increasing again,” he says. “Demand is especially high for attractive, high-quality greens with good taste and high nutritional value. And Texas spinach certainly meets those criteria.”

Although processed spinach consumption increased in 2007 after the E. coli scare, most of the U.S. per-capita increase in consumption for the past two years has been of fresh spinach.

“The industry has done a good job of making the public aware of the nutritional and health benefits of spinach, including its antioxidants and cancer preventing qualities,” he says. “But there are still lingering consumer concerns about product safety.”

The Texas industry also has been helped indirectly by increasing transportation costs, says Larry Stein, an AgriLife horticulturist in Uvalde.

“The cost of transporting spinach from California has gone up significantly in the past few years and that has made Texas spinach more competitive in many parts of the U.S.,” Stein says. “We’re also looking into more area spinach producers bagging their own spinach and shipping it out from here. Currently a lot of the product is shipped east for packaging. Bagging it themselves will save on costs and also enable producers to have even more control over their product.”

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