International conference highlighted strength of Texas spinach industry

by Paul Schattenberg, Texas A&M AgriLife

Texas’ billion-dollar spinach industry was the focus of the 2016 International Spinach Conference, which brought more than 80 people from various countries to San Antonio.

The two-day conference, coordinated by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, was attended by spinach growers and shippers, as well as others involved in the agricultural and scientific aspects of spinach production. Attendees were from the U.S., Canada, China, Denmark, England, Japan and the Netherlands.

“The conference is designed to give attendees a real-world look at the spinach industry and spinach production – both the good and bad – and introduce them to the latest science and technology to benefit the industry,” said Dr. Larry Stein, AgriLife Extension horticulturist, Uvalde, and conference planning chair.

During the first morning, attendees were given an overview of the spinach industry in Texas, particularly in the Texas Wintergarden area, including its transformation from inception almost a century ago to the present. Additional presentations addressed the economic impact of the crop to the state, the origin of the Texas Wintergarden Producers’ Board and the role of Del Monte Foods Inc. in the evolution of the Texas spinach industry. They heard about food safety, the history and significance of the Popeye statue in Crystal City and some of the work being done in molecular breeding of spinach.

“From its start in 1917 to the present, the spinach industry in Texas has had boom and bust periods, with the boom in the 1930s, ‘40s and ’50s and then a decline in the ‘60s,” Stein said. “But in the ‘70s there was a resurgence with the advent of new herbicides, the introduction of new spinach varieties and the use of mechanical harvesters.”

He said with improvements like these and the addition of baby-leaf spinach to production in 2009, the state now has about 1,100 acres dedicated to fresh-market spinach production and another 1,100  dedicated to spinach for processing.

Spinach production over the past century has brought more than $1 billion to the state’s economy, noted Dr. Rob Hogan, AgriLife Extension economist, Uvalde.

“Spinach was planted primarily in the Texas Wintergarden area because there was abundant water, fertile soil, a mild climate and an availability of labor,” Hogan said.

Though he said some of these factors have changed and there are increased costs and new challenges, spinach production in the state continues to grow, with an estimated 42,215 tons produced during the 2015/2016 growing year.

Food safety was another topic at the conference. Marcel Valdez, AgriLife Extension agent for agriculture for Zavala County, explained how the state’s spinach industry took a hit in 2006 due to instances of E. coli contamination in fresh-market spinach grown in California.

“Even though we had never had an instance of E. coli in Texas-grown spinach, consumers were worried about the safety of all spinach, so the Texas industry suffered as a result,” Valdez said. “But even with modern mechanical harvesting, there is still a human element involved in the process, so we are constantly working with the Wintergarden Spinach Producers Board and spinach producers, processors, packagers and shippers to ensure proper hygiene and the delivery of a wholesome, safe product.”

Valdez said he holds about a dozen food safety trainings a year – in English, Spanish or both – as part of a proactive approach to product safety for the Texas spinach industry.

“We’ve never had an instance of spinach contamination in Texas, and we’re working hard to make sure we never do,” he said.

The afternoon conference presentations focused on weed control, spinach disease challenges in Texas,  web blight in the Desert Southwest, the effectiveness of fungicides on downy mildew, improvements in growing organic spinach and emerging issues in bacterial challenges to spinach.

“Disease pressure from downy mildew, white rust and other plant pathogens is a continuing challenge to the industry,” Stein said. “But Texas A&M AgriLife, along with agricultural professionals and researchers in other spinach-producing areas of the U.S. and in other countries, is working to find ways to combat those diseases through safe chemical controls and improved plant genetics and breeding.”

The second day of the conference, attendees visited spinach operations at Crawford Farms near Uvalde, Tiro Tres Farms in La Pryor and the Del Monte spinach processing plant near Crystal City.

The tour showed attendees the processes, management practices and technologies producers are using to make their operations as efficient and profitable as possible, said Samantha Korzekwa, AgriLife Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources for Uvalde County.

“Spinach growers and those involved in packaging and shipping were able to see the process from start to finish,” she said. “One of the highlights was visiting Crawford Farms and meeting the engineer who built a harvester that can harvest three rows of spinach simultaneously. Another highlight was the Del Monte plant where they were able to see the spinach go from harvesting all the way through processing and canning.”

Stein said the international spinach conference also provided attendees an additional opportunity.

“While the conference gave them a lot of useful information on the industry — its past, present and future – it also gave them the chance to network and learn what people in other parts of this country and in other countries are doing to benefit the industry,” he said.

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