Agri-Musings: Oranges and a Changing Frost Line

Consider the Orange. Now Consider the Orange in Texas. 

You may think, there’s not an orange industry in Texas, is there? Well, not now. 

The Texas Handbook tells us that the first orange tree was planted by Spaniards in the 1700s on a ranch north of Edinburg, Texas.

In the 1800s  on the Sabine River, along the eastern Shores of the Texas Gulf Coast, orange trees were grown.

As early as 1910 “Oranges and satsumas, many from trees imported from Japan, were produced along the Texas coast in fairly large quantities… when 42,384 orange trees produced 10,695 boxes of oranges.

However, by 1925, all citrus production was gone from the Texas Coast.

Today, wonderful grapefruits are grown in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, but all that remains of commercial orange production on the coast is the name: Orange County, Texas with the county seat in the city of Orange, Texas.

So, what happened? In general, the orange trees were wiped out by a series of periodic frosts.

When I lived in Houston in the 1990s, I heard an anecdote that the Texas frost line has incrementally dropped southward since the 1800s. That certainly seems to be the case as periodic freezes have occurred further south and with more frequency and severity over the past century.

Upon reflection of this example of the failed orange industry in Texas or new growing opportunities for grapes on the East coast, it may be that cropping patterns are influenced by both sufficiency and extremes. Crops need sufficient water, nutrients, tilth, sunlight, air, chilling hours and/or heat units to thrive and produce an abundant crop. Crops also need an absence of extremes such as drought, heat, freezes, early frosts or deluges in order to thrive in a certain geography.

As growing conditions are altered, and plants become more or less productive, then, cropping patterns will shift as well. And new technologies will be developed. Where and how crops are grown will evolve. While change is scary for the businessman and his investors, it is a pervasive and fascinating aspect of agriculture. Agriculture is a gamble that an individual grower or an industry will be able to adapt to change, seize opportunity, and solve problems better and faster than a competing grower or market. Viva La Ag!