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Food & Health : Agri. & Environ. Last Updated: Apr 20, 2011 - 9:38:09 AM


Texas spinach industry still packing a punch in spite of reduced acreage
By Paul Schattenberg
Oct 14, 2008 - 5:56:17 PM

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October 14, 2008

Writer(s): Paul Schattenberg, 210-467-6575,paschattenberg@ag.tamu.edu
Contact(s): Dr. Larry Stein, 830-278-9151, lstein@ag.tamu.edu
Jose Pena, 830-278-9151, jpena@ag.tamu.edu

UVALDE – Like Popeye after eating a can of the leafy greens, Texas spinach producers are “pumped up” about the future of their industry due to its track record of product safety and increasing consumer demand for high-quality greens, experts said.

“While overall spinach production is down, we’re still encouraged about our industry as a whole,” said Ed Ritchie, president of the Winter Garden Spinach Producers Board. “There’s strong consumer demand for our product. We also feel that with the way the economy is now, fewer people will be eating out and more will be eating at home. That should increase sales.”

Ritchie, himself a spinach producer and shipper in the Winter Garden area, which includes several southwestern Texas counties, said fresh and processed spinach planting statewide is down about 20 percent from 2006.

“Part of that reduction in acreage was a result of the E. coli scare a few years ago,” he said. “And part is due to farmers choosing to grow alternative row crops, especially grain crops, because right now these crops are getting higher revenues.”

Ritchie said about 3,200 acres in Texas are now devoted to spinach production, with two-thirds of that acreage being used to produce processed spinach for canning and freezing. However, he added, a number of Winter Garden farmers, himself included, have had success producing small-leaf fresh spinach for the health-conscious consumer.

The Winter Garden area currently produces about 90 percent of Texas-grown spinach. Planting is already under way, and harvesting of the upcoming crop should begin around the second week in November.

“California currently dominates U.S. spinach production and produced about 78 percent of the nation’s 831 million pounds of spinach in 2007,” said Jose Pena, Texas AgriLife Extension Service economist at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Uvalde.

Pena said Texas ranks third in the nation for fresh-market spinach production and second in production of processed spinach.

“After a slight decline in 2005 and 2006, the demand for fresh vegetables is increasing again,” he said. “Demand is especially high for attractive, high-quality greens with good taste and high nutritional value. And Texas spinach certainly meets those criteria.”

Pena said while processed spinach consumption increased in 2007 after the E. coli scare, the majority of the U.S. per capita increase in consumption for the past two years has been of fresh spinach.

“The industry has done a good job of making the public aware of the nutritional and health benefits of spinach, including its antioxidants and cancer preventing qualities,” he said. “But there are still lingering consumer concerns about product safety.”

While there has never been an instance of E. coli associated with spinach produced in Texas, the general consumer concern with product safety affected everyone in the industry, said Dr. Larry Stein, AgriLife Extension horticulturist at the Uvalde center.

“Texas spinach producers apply best agricultural practices in the planting, harvesting and handling of their product to greatly reduce any possibility of contamination,” Stein said.

Ritchie said every Texas spinach producer knows of has either U.S. Department of Agriculture or industry-set PRIMUS certification for product safety guidelines.

"We’re also starting to label our spinach with a country of origin designation which includes the city and state so people can know the specific area it came from,” he said. “This will help keep the consumer more informed about the product they’re eating.”

Texas producers are also investigating the use of irradiation to ensure an even safer product, Stein said.

“Now that the USDA has approved irradiation of spinach, consumers will realize this is a safe and effective means of killing the bacteria that may cause E. coli,” he said. “And adopting it will add another level of safety to an already extremely safe product. We’re working with area producers to address any logistical or perceptual issues they may have about this.”

Stein added the Texas spinach industry also is being indirectly helped by increasing transportation costs.

“The cost of transporting spinach from California has gone up significantly in the past few years and that has made Texas spinach more competitive in many parts of the U.S. ,” Stein said.

“We’re also looking into more area spinach producers bagging their own spinach and shipping it out from here,” Stein said. “Currently a lot of the product is shipped east for packaging. Bagging it themselves will save on costs and also enable producers to have even more control over their product.”

Stein said the current status and future of the Texas, U.S, and international spinach industries will be the focus of much discussion during an upcoming conference from Nov. 30 through Dec. 2 in San Antonio.

“We’ll be having our fourth annual International Spinach Conference,” said Stein, who is coordinating the conference. “This year we will have growers, shippers and industry leaders from Texas and at least seven other U.S. states, as well as from Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands. It will be a great opportunity for people to share knowledge that can help advance and improve the spinach industry worldwide.”

“The Texas spinach industry is looking good,” said Ritchie. “We’ve got a high-quality, safe product that consumers want, and producers are continuing to do all they can to make it an even better and safer product.”
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© 2007 Texas A&M Agricultural Com




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