Sugar mill closing amid water crisis; $100 million impact expected

dfwnewsa | February 22, 2024 | 0 | East Texas News , South Texas News

Sugar mill closing amid water crisis; 0 million impact expected
Sean Brasher, president of Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers, INC, stands in front of the W.R. Cowley Sugar House offices as sugar cane processing stopped Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Santa Rosa. (Joel Martinez |

SANTA ROSA — Two years of crushing drought along with drying-up water supplies are forcing Texas’ last sugar mill to close after more than 50 years, cutting $100 million out of the economy and about 500 jobs.

Made up of more than 100 farmers, the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers Association’s shutdown of the legendary Santa Rosa sugar mill marks the loss of one of the region’s biggest farming operations amid the crisis that’s left farmers struggling to survive.

“It is with great sadness that the board of directors of Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers Inc. announced today that after 51 years of continuously growing and processing sugarcane into raw sugar in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, the recently completed harvest and milling season will be its last,” officials said in a news release Thursday. “RGVSG Inc. was the last remaining sugar operation in Texas.”

“Over the past half-century, RGVSG Inc. has injected hundreds of millions of dollars into the local, state and national economies,” officials said.

W.R. Cowley Sugar House is seen as sugar cane processing has stopped Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Santa Rosa. (Joel Martinez |

Officials blamed much of the regional crisis on the U.S. State Department’s handling of Mexico’s failure to comply with a treaty requiring it share reservoir supplies with the United States.

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“Despite our growers’ deep desire to continue this legacy for future generations, without reliable supplies of irrigation water and the necessary crop insurance provisions and administrative guidelines to maintain acres, RGVSG Inc. has no choice but to close its doors,” officials said. “Agriculture in the Rio Grande Valley depends on adequate and reliable irrigation water deliveries.”

In 1972, board of director’s Chairman Tudor Uhlhorn’s father Tock Uhlhorn became one of the mill’s first farmers, launching a sugarcane operation spanning 1,000 acres.

“The mill is a giant operation,” Tudor Uhlhorn said in an interview Thursday. “It impacts Valley-wide — farmers, suppliers, seed companies.”

For about two years, the region’s farmers have struggled to survive amid a deepening drought and dwindling water supplies, cutting back on farmed acreage, he said.

A sign is shown leading to the plant outside W.R. Cowley Sugar House as sugar cane processing has stopped Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Santa Rosa. (Joel Martinez |

Now, farmers are down to 5% percent of their regularly allotted irrigated water supplies, Uhlhorn said.

“This year, nobody’s had any water,” he said. “So everyone’s trying figure out what to do.”

The sugar mill’s closure deeply cuts into the local economy, slashing an annual $80 million to $100 million operation while laying off about 150 full-time employees and about 300 part-time workers, he said.

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“We regret the impact our closure will have on communities across the Valley, especially those closest to the mill — La Villa, Santa Rosa, and Edcouch,” officials said. “With over 100 local growers growing over 40,000 acres at times and the mill employing over 500 full-time and seasonal workers annually, RGVSG Inc. proudly contributed to the food security of the United States.”

For decades, he and Valley leaders have been pleading federal officials demand Mexico release U.S. water, Uhlhorn said.

Now, the deepening crisis is tearing into agriculture, for decades the foundation of the Valley’s economy.

“For over 30 years, farmers in South Texas have been battling with Mexico’s failure to comply with the provisions of the 1944 Water Treaty between the U.S. and Mexico that governs water sharing between the two nations on the Colorado River and the Lower Rio Grande,” officials said in the release.

“For over 25 years, the U.S. State Department’s unwillingness to prioritize the citizens and agricultural producers of South Texas has led to numerous water shortages in our area,” they said. “Despite the valiant efforts of the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, led by Commissioner Maria-Elena Giner fighting for South Texas farmers and ranchers without the U.S. State Department’s support, all attempts to negotiate timely water releases from Mexico have failed.”

For decades, many residents in the La Villa, Santa Rosa and Edcouch area have counted on the sugar mill for jobs.

“It is a sad day for all of us at RGVSG Inc.,” Sean Brashear, the organization’s president and chief executive officer, said in the release. “Our employees’ dedication and sacrifice to RGVSG Inc. has been exemplary. Working alongside them for the past 20 years has been my honor. As we wind down our operations, we will do everything possible to assist our employees and their families during the transition. I would also like to thank the members of Congress who fought for us.”

For Uhlhorn and other farmers, the sugar mill’s closure marks the end of decades-old family operations.

”While the closure of RGVSG Inc. saddens us, we are grateful for the memories, relationships and experiences we have gained throughout the years,” he said in the release. “Thank you to everyone who has been a part of RGVSG Inc.’s journey.”

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