The winter storm that knocked out power across Texas last month has become the latest example of Mother Nature picking agricultural winners and losers — and this time it's Kern County growers coming out on top.
U.S. and Canadian grocery stores that were forced to look elsewhere after extreme weather clobbered Texas citrus orchards have turned to California grapefruit growers, including Kern County producers who normally focus on markets around the Pacific Rim.
Prices quickly jumped 25 percent to 50 percent at Johnston Farms, a grapefruit grower, packer and shipper in Edison, said partner and Sales Manager Derek Vaughn. He said he wishes the company had another 500 acres of the product to help meet heavy demand, but unfortunately everything's sold out by now.
One large local grower doubled its prices, he said, adding that the storm's ag-related impacts could extend for another year or more depending on how bad the damage is in Texas.
Meanwhile, some consumers may be tasting California grapefruit for the first time.
"Once they get California grapefruit in their hands they'll see that, hey, this is just as good as Texas grapefruit," Vaughn said.
The situation represents a reversal of fortunes from years past, when hard freezes, high winds and other difficult farming conditions have cut into Kern's revenues, especially from temperature-sensitive citrus, while helping growers in other areas unaffected by local weather disruptions.
Because the Central Valley's grapefruit season overlaps somewhat with that of Texas's Rio Grande Valley, particularly in March and April, local prices for that fruit more than any other citrus were expected to increase.
Some in the business said local orange revenues may yet see a bump. But a vice president and senior analyst at RaboResearch Food & Agribusiness, David Magaña, said any change in orange prices will be modest because, while Texas accounts for a little more than a third of the U.S. grapefruit crop, it grows less than 2 percent of the nation's domestically grown oranges.
He noted Texas's grapefruit product had been forecast to exceed last year's volume by 14 percent at about 200,000 tons, while California's crop was expected to be up 10 percent at 168,000 tons. He added that prices paid to California grapefruit growers started the season with elevated prices.
Citrus was Kern's third-highest grossing crop in 2019 with close to $1 billion in grower revenues, county records show. Grapefruit accounted for about 15 percent of that total, Valencia oranges about 8 percent.
The freezing storm that slammed North America Feb. 13-17, sending temperatures as low as 21 degrees, caused at least $310 million in damage, according to the Texas Farm Bureau. That figure represents harm to two years' worth of citrus but does not include potential losses related to damaged trees, which could be substantial bureau spokesman Gary Joiner said.
Some 55 percent of Texas's grapefruit crop had already been harvested when the storm hit, Joiner said, adding that most of the state's late-season oranges were still on the tree.
The storm's agricultural damage will extend to employment as farmworkers and packing sheds go without a crop to process, he added. But he said that's the way it goes sometimes.
"As those market dynamics move and change, I think there can be winners in times where there are losers in that marketplace," he said.
Vaughn said growers never wish ill on their peers in other regions and that "we definitely see our share of it" when difficult weather conditions hit local crops.
That said, he expects the normal distribution in which more than three-quarters of the local grapefruit goes overseas could change for a year or two as Texas orchards recover. It could be that the balance shifts so that half of locally grown grapefruit goes overseas and half stays in North America, he said.
Edison-area citrus grower Ben Taft doesn't grow grapefruit but he said some of his Valencia oranges may yet jump in price depending on how bad the damage turns out to be in Texas.
For three years now locally grown citrus has suffered damage from winds coming over the Tehachapi Mountains. In some cases it's so bad the fruit has to be sold for juice, which has caused "a significant economic pain and angst in the last several years," Taft said.
It's just the way things go, he said: Sometimes the weather favors Texas and other times it favors California.
"Everyone gets their time in the barrel," he said. "We have freezes and they have freezes."