Texas’ only sugar mill closes after 50 years in the Rio Grande Valley

Drought and inadequate water supplies devastated sugar cane harvests.

By Michael MarksFebruary 26, 2024 1:51 pm, ,

Water shortages in the Rio Grande Valley are already having catastrophic consequences for some farmers in the region.

For more than 50 years, sugar cane farmers in the Rio Grande Valley brought their crops to Santa Rosa after the harvest. Santa Rosa is a small town in a rural part of the Valley that’s home to the state’s only sugar mill.

Years of drought have devastated sugar growers in South Texas, however. So much so that the board of directors of the Rio Grande Sugar Growers co-op decided to close the mill permanently. Tudor Uhlhorn, chairman of the co-op’s board, spoke to the Standard about the decision. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Sad news. Can you talk us through how the board came to this decision?

Tudor Uhlhorn: Well, this has been an ongoing process as we struggle to get Mexico to try to provide the water that they’re obligated to under the 1944 treaty – 350,000 acre feet on average a year.

In 2022/2023, crop was pretty close to normal at about 31,000 acres. And because of the beginning of this water shortage, in January of ’23, our growers plowed out about 15,000 acres and dropped us down to about 16,500 acres, which it barely makes us economically viable. And at this point this year, we had a meeting with the IBWC on Feb. 8.


International Boundary and Water Commission. They administer the treaty between the U.S. and Mexico in the U.S section.

Where we learned that Mexico, they had promised to sign a new minute, which is, sort of, an agreement outside the treaty to provide more water to us, which was supposed to be done on Dec. 5. And as usual, Mexico did not meet that deadline and still hasn’t. And that means that we weren’t going to get the water.

So because sugar cane is such a long lead time crop – from the time you planted is about anywhere between 14 and 18 months – if the mill were to operate, it wouldn’t cover its cost and there wouldn’t be any money left to pay the growers. And so it was an easy decision.

» RELATED: Tensions rise in the Rio Grande Basin as Mexico lags in water deliveries to the U.S.

Let me ask you, what sort of economic impacts is this going to have in the region?

Well, we’ve got obviously the 90 growers that are to be impacted. But more importantly, and what we’re most concerned about, is we have over 500 employees.

350 of those employees are seasonal, that come to work in about October and work through, usually, March or April. They drive trucks, they drive tractors, they drive harvesters.

And then we have another 150 full time employees that are at the mill to operate the mill – administrative staff – and then to repair the mill during the off season, because a sugar mill is a very huge industrial operation and it takes several months to repair it.

Then easy to see how this is going to have pretty profound ripple effects. I understand your father was one of the first farmers to bring sugar cane to the mill, back in the 70s. How has this process of closing it down felt for you personally?

Well, it’s sad for all of us. And, for me especially, I grow anywhere between 700 to 1,000 acres of cane.

The more diversified you can be in agriculture, the better off you are right. Sugar cane has provided a good diversity for a lot of growers down here, irrigated growers. And, we’re losing that.

The economic impact is last year’s crop was not very good. And this year’s crop, I’m going to have to plow that out now that we’ve decided not to move forward with cane at a late point, and it’s going to be hard to replant that to another crop.

So what happens next? What’s involved with actually shutting down this plant? Are the workers getting laid off or been laid off already?

Right. The workers have been issued a notice that they’re going to be employed through April 29. They’ll receive all of their pay and vacation pay and all of that. But some employees will remain on the job as we go through the process of liquidating the assets of the mill.

You know, we’ve got lots of huge industrial equipment that other sugar mills would be interested in because to get, for example, a steam-driven turbine generator… the lead time is 5 or 6 years, maybe. And we have one they can have, you know, now.

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