(July 3, 2014) — Organic food sales keep growing, but Texas is not reaping the benefits that might be expected from the country’s second-largest agriculture producer. U.S. organic sales grew 15 percent in 2013 to $11.6 billion, which translates to an estimated $300 million every year in Texas retail grocery stores. Yet very little of that money makes it into farmers’ pockets because there aren’t that many certified organic producers in the Lone Star State.
As of 2012, only 188 Texas farms and ranches were certified as organic under USDA National Organic Program standards, and 105 were transitioning to organic. According to the 2012 census of Agriculture, the total value of Texas organic products at farm gate was about $72 million.
A few Texas growers were way ahead of the national curve, and some of them are being profiled by ATTRA in a series of interviews titled “The Texas Organic Chronicles.” The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) developed the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, which goes by the acronym ATTRA, to make it easier for farmers and ranchers to manage their land for the long term.
Mike Morris, head of ATTRA’s regional office in San Antonio, said the Texas Organic Chronicles focuses on the stories of organic farmers in hopes of making the practices of organic farming less mysterious. He also hopes to raise awareness about the opportunities in organic agriculture that Texas farmers are missing.
“We have more farms, I believe, than any state in the country, but we’re in the 20s when it comes to the number of organic farms,” Morris said. “There’s a lot of missed opportunity there.”
The latest interview in the Chronicles series is with Dennis Holbrook, who started South Texas Organics in 1984. Holbrook grew up on a farm in South Texas before the advent of chemical agriculture, and he was there when farmers began to rely more and more on chemicals to control weeds and pests. By the time he was a teenager he was operating orchard sprayers and herbicide applicators and mixing chemicals for crop dusters. That’s how things were being done when he took over the family farm operation in the early 1980s.
The first years were very productive ones for South Texas citrus growers. Maybe too good. Texas had the second and third largest grapefruit crops in history in 1981 and 1982, and prices plunged from overproduction. Holbrook began looking around for alternatives.
Around that same time, Texas Tech conducted a blind test of ag workers for pesticide residue. Holbrook decided to have himself tested, too. Owing no doubt to the orchard sprayers, herbicide applicators and crop duster chemicals of his teenage years, Holbrook’s numbers were off the chart.
Finally, in December of 1983, a major freeze destroyed nearly every crop in South Texas. This was the tipping point for Holbrook, who went organic in 1984 and received his USDA certification in 1988.
“For me, this was a chance to make a break and get off the chemical merry go round,” he said.
Holbrook began by converting 60 acres of citrus to organics while farming the rest of his acres the same way he always had. Originally, he figured to sell his organic produce to local health food stores. His vision then was what has become a reality for many farmers today — selling local food to local markets. But the health food stores of the day weren’t interested in his local, organic citrus.
“When I realized that business model was not going to work, I decided to become a wholesaler ... to become nationally significant,” he said.
“We set our goal and directed our operations to meet that goal. Our model is derived from that vision.”
A second killer freeze dealt another staggering blow to the South Texas citrus industry in 1989. Prior to 1983, the region had 70,000 citrus acres. Holbrook puts the number today at about 27,000 acres. More than 700 of those acres belong to South Texas Organics, which is celebrating its 30th year in business this year.
“I can’t say that I would do anything substantially different because we lived that dream and made it a reality, but in the process of building a business you step out on a limb,” he said. “We’ve been very fortunate ... blessed to be at the beginning of the organic movement.”