Aloe vera is grown in arid countries around the world, but few places grow such high-quality plants as the plantations of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. That's no brag, just fact. In the field, the rows of the grayish-green plants look like little soldiers lined up with two-foot swords on all sides. These are the big, tough brothers of your house plants.
There are more than 350 types of aloe vera plants grown in the warm climates of Asia, Australia, Europe, and of course, the Americas. Originally from the Mediterranean region, the plant was used by the Ancient Egyptians as a cure for skin afflictions, infections, and constipation.
According to the International Aloe Science Council, a nonprofit trade association of growers and producers, aloe vera goes into $110 billion of finished products. The Rio Grande Valley, especially around Harlingen, has been growing the plants for decades and produces approximately 95% of the aloe vera crop grown in the U.S. More plants are harvested in Mexico than any other country.
"Aloe vera has been grown in the valley since the 1950s and Sixties," says John Sigrist, owner of Aloe King, one of the oldest growers along the Rio Grande. He estimates that about 1,100 acres of aloe vera are grown in the area. That's down from a peak of 4,000 to 6,000 acres, he says.
Although the aloe vera plant closely resembles a cactus or agave plant, it is actually a member of the lily family. The sticky, mucous gel in the center of the thick leaves is an ingredient in hundreds of consumer products, but most folks recognize it as a home remedy for burns, insect bites, and dry skin.
"The commercial process is pretty simple," Sigrist says. "We want to keep it in its natural state until ready to use. We handle it like any perishable vegetable product." Aloe King is the only farm and producer in the Valley that offers tours of the process from field to product.
Sigrist got into the aloe vera growing business almost by accident. His parents retired to the valley to escape the harsh winters of northwestern Missouri in the Seventies. Initially they went into the mobile-home-park business, but his mother's dry skin problems led to the use of aloe vera for its curative properties.
Sigrist decided he wanted to try his hand at growing aloe vera, and borrowed $500 to rent five acres of farmland outside of Mercedes, Texas. His first crop of $200's worth of plants netted him $2,500. He was hooked on the economical value of the plant as well as the medicinal value.
Today, Aloe King has 100 acres under cultivation, with about 4,000 plants per acre. The leaves are harvested when a plant reaches 4 or 5 years old with leaves 21Ú2 feet long and weighing up to 3 lbs. each. Most plants will produce until they're 7 or 8 years old, Sigrist says. Once the plant reaches the end of its productive life, it is then ground up to fertilize in the field. Each year a mother plant will produce a dozen "pups," which are sold as houseplants or kept for future crops.
Sigrist says that environment has a lot to do with the quality of the gel produced by the plants. "The valley has the right combination of weather and soil to produce a consistently high-quality aloe," he says.
The Aloe King farm is west of Harlingen outside of Mercedes about a mile off of U.S. 83. "Come by anytime," he says to anyone interested in seeing the entire procedure for processing aloe vera. His mother still gives tours and runs a small gift shop of products at the farm. Their busy season for tours is December through March when the winter Texans visit between 8am and 5pm. During the summer, the hours drop to 8am to 3pm. For directions or information about the farm, call 956/565-0193 or visit their Web site at www.aloeking.com.
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