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Agricultural leaders speak, listen to concerns; Coming fire season, pecan quarantine among issues discussed

“Research is critical. What we need to do for the next five years will be totally different than what we have done in the past 50 years,” says Dr. Rolando Flores of New Mexico State University, shown at left, about the need to develop new crops and agricultural ventures in the state. Flores and New Mexico State Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte spoke with agricultural producers Wednesday night at the Eastern New Mexico State Fairgrounds. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Worrisome federal regulations, the pecan quarantine, a need for technology and innovation to overcome industry challenges, the importance of the agricultural sector to state and regional economies, and a landscape at serious risk of fires in the next few months were some of the issues discussed Wednesday night when local agricultural industry members met with two top agricultural leaders in the state.

“When you start looking at the future, there is great opportunity, and when you start looking at agriculture, there is great opportunity,” said Jeff Witte, Secretary of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture. “I am probably the most optimistic guy in agriculture, and I have to be.”

Witte and Dr. Rolando Flores, dean and chief administrative officer of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at New Mexico State University, came to Roswell as the first stop of this year’s Agricultural Listening Tours in various cities in the state.

They met with about a dozen agricultural producers and industry members at the show hall at the Eastern New Mexico State Fairgrounds on Southeast Main Street to discuss their organizations’ efforts to help the industry and to hear about local concerns.

Some of the comments centered on the importance of the industry as an economic sector in the state and region.

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New Mexico agriculture industry’s total production reached $3.22 billion in 2016, according to a February 2018 publication of the state Agricultural Department.

Chaves County ranks second in the state for annual agricultural cash receipts, with $480.9 million in livestock and crop sales in 2016.

Flores said that more people need to understand that United States could become a food importer unless changes are made in research and policy.

“Your voices are great, but we need many more voices. We are falling behind to urban areas,” said Flores.

Witte, Flores and attendees urged working together and with state and federal legislators on issues. Topics discussed included the following:

• The statewide landscape, given the lack of moisture during the past 12 months, is “crispy,” according to Witte. He said he has met with an Emergency Support Functions team ahead of the fire season to plan for the use of available federal public lands for ranchers if they are burned off of their land. Beginning in May or June, substantial rain is predicted for the state, Witte said federal forecasters have told them.

• The New Mexico Agriculture Department has been allocated $250,000, some of which will be used for treatment and inspection programs in the area to deal with the pecan weevil, a pest found in some home orchards in Chaves and neighboring counties. As a result of sightings of the pest in 2016, a quarantine has been put into place that restricts the movement of pecans from affected counties unless certain requirements are met. Witte said he wants to make the quarantine permanent for a period of five or more years to work toward eradication of the pest and consistency in practices. He also said that he hopes to establish a cold storage facility in this area to help regional producers meet requirements that will allow them to ship outside the area. Witte also talked about a new state law to license pecan buyers, saying it will help guard against weevil problems and help prevent pecan theft, which he said has been severe in some areas of the state.

• Local business and industry members are discussing providing locally raised meat for school lunches now that USA Beef Packing, a slaughterhouse and packaging business, is operating in the area.

• Some expressed worries about a federal regulation that could require ranchers and farmers to obtain a commercial drivers’ license or install electronic logging devices for vehicles weighing more than 26,001 pounds.

According to Witte, the regulations have existed for decades but now many of today’s vehicles used by non-commercial drivers have reached the size to fall under the regulations. New Mexico is in its second grace period that delays the need for compliance, but Witte and state Rep. Candy Spence Ezell (R-Roswell), who attended the meeting, urged people to become more involved with their state and federal legislators to push for legislation that would better serve the agricultural industry.

• Concerns about low milk prices, which are set by federal marketing orders, continue. The dairy industry has been helped somewhat, said Witte, by an insurance program that will help fill the gap between the price of milk and the cost of feed. He said dairy operators need to be aware of ongoing negotiations involving the North American Free Trade Act, which will have a big impact on the U.S. dairy industry. The “dumping” of whey proteins by Canada is a big concern, said Witte. “I will tell you what we want at the state level. We want harmonization with Mexico,” Witte said. “We have harmonization, kind of, with most things on Canada, specifically on environment and labor.”

• Labor problems experienced by farmers, dairy operators and ranchers are widespread in the North American continent, including in Mexico, as fewer people opt to work in agriculture and as U.S. immigration concerns affect hiring. Some areas in the United States and Mexico are looking to Asia, smaller Eastern European nations and Central and South America for workers, Witte said. “We need to be paying attention and investing in technology and research in our universities to find an alternatives to this hand-labor stuff,” said Witte. Flores added, “Research is critical. What we need to do for the next five years will be totally different than what we have done in the past 50 years.”

• Having few processing plants for livestock and crops hampers the state. Witte said that a study indicates that 94 percent of agricultural products grown here are shipped out of the state to be processed, altered and then sold. Flores said NMSU succeeded in getting the New Mexico Legislature to allocate $25 million in general obligation bond money, which awaits voter approval, for a new meat processing, food processing and bioscience facility. Part of that facility would be rented to a commercial processing company to help train the next generation of workers in processing plants.

• Flores gave his view that the challenges in the industry require new scientific advances and approaches. He said that current research must focus on the future of the industry and U.S. society. Some of those new research initiatives involve new varieties of crops that require less labor and water, food safety and food security issues, water management practices and nutrient-rich foods. “We need to develop the agriculture of the future,” he said.

• Some expressed concerns about decisions made by the State Engineer’s Office regarding water allocations affecting ranchers and farmers. Witte said he has no formal role in those decisions, although he sometimes speaks to the office to advocate for changes when he feels decisions are hurting the industry. He urged locals to work together with their elected officials and state officials to address such problems.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.