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Texas USA

How Sweet It Is

The Rio Grande Valley’s beautiful ruby red grapefruit

For a Christmas red that’s uniquely Texas, cut into one of the Rio Grande Valley’s fragrant red grapefruit. On cold December days, the citrus brings a cheery reminder of tropical sunshine along with plenty of vitamin C.

Citrus grower Donald Thompson’s harvest contributed to the approximate 360 million pounds of Valley grapefruit that were shipped to the fresh fruit market last season. The 70-year-old owner of Thompson’s Rio Pride, a gift-fruit shipper, jokes that sweet, ruby-red grapefruit juice flows through his veins. He radiates good health and has eaten a whole grapefruit for breakfast almost every morning since 1959. That’s when he finished stints in the Army and college and returned home to Weslaco and a lifelong immersion in grapefruit, oranges and lemons.

“My daddy came from the Panhandle and started in the citrus business in the late 1930s. Kids at that time worked,” Thompson recalled. So the young Donald worked, too, and watched the groves being irrigated and the tractors preparing the land for more citrus trees.

Thompson took over the 200-acre farm from his father in 1972 and expanded it to almost 8,000 acres, planting thousands of trees on leased and purchased land. Enduring freezes and droughts, he cared for his own groves and supervised grove care for other growers, ran a citrus tree nursery and began shipping gift fruit in 1986.

“It takes a different breed of animal to be a citrus grower,” he said. “If I worried about a freeze, I wouldn’t be in the business.” Yet, he knows that someday another freeze will decimate his groves, like the one in 1989 did.

Recently, Thompson pared his citrus groves down to 200 acres and got out of the nursery and grove care businesses to concentrate on growing citrus and marketing it. He has more time now to stop and smell the white citrus blossoms that perfume the neighborhood in February and March. By October, the shiny-leaved trees heavy with navel and Mars oranges are ready for harvesting. The prized red Rio Grande Valley grapefruit begins ripening in November and is available until May. Thompson’s groves yield between 15 and 30 tons of citrus per acre.

For Thompson, nothing compares to the Rio Red grapefruit: “It’s the sweetest in the world.” He harvested the first commercial orchard of Rio Red grapefruit after the variety was developed by researcher Richard Hensz at what is now the Texas A&M University Kingsville Citrus Center-Weslaco. “I just jumped in and planted it, since I had faith in Dr. Hensz,” Thompson said. “The sugar content is higher in the Rio Red than in any other variety. And it’s highest when grown in the Valley because of our soil, sunshine and climate.”

For years, Thompson has sold his citrus to peddlers who take the Choice grade grapefruit on the road to Laredo, Houston, San Antonio and up to Oklahoma. Next to the orchard office on Pleasant View Road, he runs a fruit stand that caters to neighbors and winter Texans. “Locals understand that scarring and scratch marks on fruit doesn’t affect its taste,” Thompson said, referring to marks caused by branches rubbing against the fruit in the wind.

But perfect Rio Red grapefruit—softball-sized, blemish-free, with a rosy blush on the skin, glowing with promise—are classed as Fancy grade and set aside for gift fruit—premium orbs that command premium prices.

Demand for the beautiful fruit spikes in December. Thompson’s crews pick and pack 60 percent of Rio Pride’s gift fruit orders in two short, hectic weeks. The boxes go as far as England, Alaska and Canada, but a surprising amount of Texas grapefruit goes to recipients in Florida and California. The red grapefruit in those states just can’t compare to the Texas product.

Thompson promotes the Valley’s oranges, too, which he calls “the best eating navel oranges in the world.” But because their sugar content is so high, oranges spoil easier than grapefruit.

Behind the Rio Pride office in south Weslaco, Thompson grows 23 varieties of unusual fruit—like Buddha’s hand, a citron, and pomelos—that he calls his show-and-taste grove. “I take people who come with their grandkids from up north out to see the different kinds of fruit.” He enjoys his impromptu tour guiding as much as his visitors do. “Get next to your honey when you taste this mandarin lime,” he has joked with them. “It’s going to give you pucker power that won’t stop.” 

Thompson eats his grapefruit halves religiously. “People get mad at me because I don’t share my private stock with them” in late summer before the new crop ripens, he said. But grapefruit is more than breakfast food. The grower raves about the grapefruit pie his wife, Mary, makes for family gatherings. Even with pumpkin and pecan pies for competition, her grapefruit pie disappears first.

In the past, Thompson’s long involvement in the Texas citrus industry has brought him the Grower of the Year Award from Texas Citrus Mutual and the title of King Citrus at the Texas Citrus Festival in Mission. He serves on the Texas A&M University-Kingsville Citrus Center advisory board.

A new grapefruit being developed at the Citrus Research Center has Thompson excited about the future of Valley citrus: “It’s so red you can barely tell the difference between a cut tomato and a cut grapefruit of this new variety.”

Thompson’s Rio Pride, a member of Magic Valley Electric Cooperative, offers a discount to Texas Co-op Power readers who mention the magazine when they place an order online or by phone.

Eileen Mattei wrote about South Texas onions in the July issue of Texas Co-op Power.