Texas farmers are getting hammered by volatile weather events, making it harder for many to make a living

Texas farmers are getting hammered by volatile weather events, making it harder for many to make a living
Dale Murden on his farm in Texas.Jason Garza as shot for The Texas Tribune

This article is part of Insider's "The True Cost of Extreme Weather" project. Read more here.


Texas' citrus farmers have a nickname for a deep freeze that struck in February 2021: the Valentine's Day Massacre.

The Arctic cold front dropped temperatures to as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of the state and dumped snow and freezing rain. The weeklong winter storm couldn't have arrived at a worse time for grapefruit and orange groves in the Rio Grande Valley of Southeast Texas.

In February, trees bear both fruit that's ready to be harvested and bloom flowers for the next year's crop. The massacre was a double whammy that set growers back several seasons. Trees also suffered damage after being exposed to the cold for days.

"I stood out in my grove looking at ice coating everything, and I knew the fruit was going to fall on the ground," Dale Murden, who's grown citrus and raised cattle in Harlingen, Texas, since 1980, told Insider. "It was a pretty sick feeling."


The deep freeze was the second disaster in two years to hit Southeast Texas. In July 2020, Hurricane Hanna brought high winds and some 15 inches of rain. Murden said more than two-thirds of his grapefruit crop were on the ground before harvest, which typically lasts from October to May.

Farming has always been vulnerable to the whims of nature. But the back-to-back blows were out of the ordinary. Murden was left wondering whether the climate crisis had played a role and if the disasters were a harbinger for the region's citrus industry.

Texas leads among states in both cumulative damages due to extreme weather as well as frequency of these events, according to a NOAA analysis going back to 1980.

While it's difficult to tie a specific disaster to the climate emergency, the vast majority of scientists agree that rising global temperatures in the atmosphere and oceans are fueling hurricanes with more intense rainfall and higher winds.

The relationship between climate change and winter weather is a trickier question with no clear answer. Globally, winters are becoming warmer as temperatures rise, but cold snaps are becoming more common and more severe. Some emerging research suggests a paradoxical effect in the Arctic might be partly to blame. The polar vortex — a swirling mass of cold air that forms in the far north — is weakened by warmer air. This allows the polar vortex to travel farther south, a recent study published in the journal Science found.

Texas farmers are getting hammered by volatile weather events, making it harder for many to make a living
Jason Garza as shot for The Texas Tribune

It can take years for citrus trees to recover from a deep freeze

The flood and the freeze took an emotional and financial toll on Murden, who owns fewer than 100 acres of grapefruit trees. During the latest normal year, 2019, his orchard produced 22 tons of grapefruit per acre and earned about $2,643 in net income per acre.

Following Hurricane Hanna, that dropped to 8 tons per acre, and the grapefruit was sold to juice makers, fetching lower prices than in the fresh market. Murden said he lost $2,075 in net income per acre that year.

As for the deep freeze, any temperature below 28 degrees Fahrenheit is devastating for citrus trees, Murden said. In the Rio Grande Valley, trees were exposed to about 50 hours of below-freezing temperatures. At those levels, the juice inside the fruit freezes, making it inedible. Then the damaged fruit falls off the tree and the blooms for the following year's crop turn black. Parts of the tree die if the bark on its trunk and limbs splits open. Even if the tree survives, it can take a few years to return to normal productivity. If the tree has to be ripped out and replanted, that timeline is even longer.

Murden said he yielded only 7 tons of grapefruit per acre in 2021 and lost about $711 per acre in net income.

Those losses balloon when you zoom out industrywide: Over the past two decades, citrus growers in Southeast Texas have produced nearly 274,000 tons of grapefruit and oranges on average per season. That was nearly cut in half during the 2020-21 season, according to data compiled by the Texas Valley Citrus Committee. The following year was even worse, yielding just under 74,000 tons. Economists at Texas A&M University tallied overall losses at nearly $228 million and more than 1,000 jobs because the citrus harvest relies on seasonal workers who pick fruit.

Texas farmers are getting hammered by volatile weather events, making it harder for many to make a living
A hurricane followed by a deep freeze ruined portions of Murden's grapefruit orchard.Jason Garza as shot for The Texas Tribune

Are times changing?

Now Murden is contemplating the future of his orchard. His insurance policy didn't cover grapefruit destroyed by the hurricane or deep freeze. It did cover the 20 acres of freeze-damaged trees that Murden had to rip out, at $3,636 an acre. It's enough to replace that particular grove, though not enough to make him whole, Murden said.

More than two years later, that grove still sits fallow for several reasons.

There's limited availability of new trees, which are grown in greenhouse nurseries for at least 18 months before they're ready to plant. There's also a lingering drought along the Rio Grande, which snakes along the Texas-Mexico border before dumping into the Gulf of Mexico. The river supplies two reservoirs with water — Falcon and Amistad — that Murden relies on to irrigate his land. The reservoirs combined are hovering around 24% full, so it's a gamble as to whether there'll be enough water available for a new grove.

Even if Murden does replant, it'll be three to four years before those trees start to produce fruit.

"It's pretty frustrating," Murden said. "The freeze made me think, 'Are times changing? Am I not going to be in a subtropical climate in the future?' I'm no weather expert, but the last four-year cycle has been bizarre."