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Lyford County Aloe: The Valley’s Versatile Crop

Mark Simon, farm manager at Hilltop Gardens in the rural Lower Rio Grande Valley community of Lyford, can testify to the unexpected advantages of living and working close to 40 acres of aloe vera plants.

“I burned my hand once, getting off of a piece of machinery,” he recalled, almost flinching at the memory of slipping and grabbing a hot exhaust pipe by mistake. With aloe close by, Simon pulled his knife out and cut open a leaf to get at the natural gel with its soothing texture inside.

The medicinal qualities of aloe vera—known as the “burn plant” during centuries of human use—propelled it into a reliable fixture of Lower Rio Grande Valley agriculture and made the region a worldwide center of activity for the aloe industry.

Simon, a husky 36-year-old native of Harlingen, lives in the original house on the 100 acres that Lee Ewald acquired in 1939. Ewald and her daughter, chemist Phyllis Schmidt, helped pioneer the commercial production of aloe vera and its use in a variety of cosmetics. South Korea-based Aloecorp bought the farm in 1988, and a more modern corporate-owned house was built nearby along with a manufacturing and processing facility.

Much of the agricultural growth of aloe vera has moved south to Mexico—Aloecorp has 1,200 acres near Tampico on the Mexican Gulf coast. But about 1,000 acres remain in cultivation throughout the Valley. It is by no means simply the burn plant anymore. The fresh leaf is sold in grocery and health food stores; spin-off plants called “pups” are taken for commercial nurseries; and the soothing plant juice in gel or concentrate form plays a part in everything from facial tissue to fabric for clothing, and from cosmetics to food and beverages.

“I drink it once a day,” Simon said. He believes it helps promote a sense of well-being. “I usually mix it with orange juice or cranberry juice.” Most commercial aloe beverages mask the neutral taste with citric or other flavors.

The main drive to Hilltop Gardens cuts through the 40 acres of aloe vera, 20 acres neatly planted on each side. They bloom in the spring, sending up large central spikes with golden blossoms. “It likes a sandy, loamy soil, and it needs very little water,” Simon said as he took a visitor on a tour in his Chevy Silverado pickup. “People think aloe is a cactus or a succulent, but it’s actually in the lily family.”

The current aloe fields are young, planted about a year and a half ago, and are entirely made up of aloe barbadensis, the variety used for commercial production. “It’s the commonest,” Simon explained. “It also produces the bigger leaves; it’s more economical to harvest.”

Two to four leaves are harvested from each plant every 60 days, and for commercial purposes, each plant lasts five to seven years. The off-shoots that crop up regularly adjacent to the plants are sold to retail outlets.

Inside Aloecorp’s adjacent plant, metal pasteurizing tanks are ready behind glass walls to process the aloe vera gel brought in from the company’s fields in Mexico. They produce cosmetic-grade and food-grade aloe concentrate here, and a laboratory tests products onsite.

Other producers have adopted similar strategies of siting additional aloe vera fields in Mexico and processing plants in the Valley. Dr. Yin-Tung Wang, a specialist at the Texas Agricultural Experimental Station in Weslaco, said aloe was grown on 3,000 to 4,000 acres in the Valley before a 1983 freeze—and another in 1989—prompted growers to locate additional fields in Mexico. Although significant expansion is not expected, he described the local industry now as healthy and developed.

“I feel like the Valley will continue to be the dominant factor in the continental United States,” John Sigrist, a 30-year veteran of the industry at Southern Fields Aloe near Mercedes, said. “A handful of us still exist.”

His Farm Fresh label focuses on producing the fresh leaf for health food and grocery stores and potted plants for nurseries. “We’ve been successful at climbing the ladder and finding our niche market,” he said.

Lily of the Desert has a 9-acre facility in Mercedes, where 60 to 90 employees produce a full range of products for health food stores and the mass market. “The Valley leaf is great. I wish we could produce all of our product in the Valley,” said Don Lovelace, the company’s president. The majority of his production is now based in Mexico because of the more temperate climate.

Lovelace said he was especially excited about recent studies that indicate that drinking aloe vera when taking vitamins improves their absorption into the system. He said that one of the industry’s main challenges is to educate people—including entrepreneurs selling a variety of aloe products—that aloe vera is a dietary supplement and not a drug. Among the aloe products readily available on the health and beauty aisles are shampoo, face and body wash, moisturizing cream, soap and bubble bath, lip balm, shaving cream, sunblock, and ointment.

At Hilltop Gardens, Simon showed off a tangled spot full of aloe plants with a range of curlicues and spikes that ultimately will be an aloe garden of more than 100 species. “We’re in the process of building the garden,” he said. Forty-five species of the plant native to southern Africa are already collected. “Our goal is to create a healing garden.”

The garden will be the centerpiece of a business plan to open the farm to tours for school groups and tourists, with a multimedia room, café and gift shop. “We’re hoping to be open by 2008,” Simon said.

That’s a short time to wait, after all, for a plant whose documented use in beauty and therapeutic products dates back centuries to ancient cultures.

Hilltop Gardens is served by Magic Valley Electric Cooperative.

Soll Sussman is a writer living in Austin. He is a past contributor to Texas Co-op Power.