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Ag secretary talks about state, local industry

New Mexico agriculture dates back to 4,000 B.C. and now has an annual economic impact of about $14 billion, says Jeff Witte, New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture, at Wednesday’s annual meeting of the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Opportunities for the $3 billion agricultural industry include increased mechanization and value-added efforts, Jeff Witte, New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture, told a group of Roswell government and business leaders Wednesday.

A New Mexico native raised on a ranch, Witte gave the keynote speech at the Wednesday annual meeting of the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. held at the Eastern New Mexico State Fairgrounds.

He said that the state’s agricultural industry produces more than $3 billion a year in marketable goods and has an overall annual economic impact of about $14 billion.

“There was a book that said that agriculture made New Mexico possible,” he said. “We can trace our agricultural roots to 4,000 B.C., and they have found that we were growing corn, very simple corn, for the communities.”

By 700 A.D., Pueblo tribes had developed acequias for irrigation and were growing squash, beans, corn, potatoes, mustard, onions and pumpkins. In 1598, the first heads of cattle, sheep, pigs and goats were introduced into the state.

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“Think about what that means today. When you drive up and down the valleys, what do you see? You don’t see little canals anymore,” he said. “In this area, you see big sprinkler systems. You see drip systems. You see all sorts of sophisticated irrigation systems. Now, what are we growing? Anything you want. Basically, anything you want.”

New Mexico now has about 1.9 million head of cattle and calves; 143,000 hogs and pigs; 3 million sheep and lambs; 14,000 goats; and bees producing 2 million pounds of honey, according to 2017 agricultural statistics published by the New Mexico Department of Agriculture in November 2018. All told, animal production was about $2.3 billion in 2017. Dozens of cash crops brought in about $720 million that year.

Chaves County is the state’s second-largest agricultural producer in terms of cash receipts, after Curry County. In 2017, it earned about $492 million from crops and livestock. The county ranks at the top in milk production, with more than 2 billion pounds produced in 2017.

Witte said that statewide, the industry supports 30,000 direct jobs, 17,500 indirect jobs and 1,000 correlated jobs. It also influences the culture, he said, and referred to a quote being circulated among ranchers and farmers now.

“I didn’t have my kids to raise livestock. I have livestock to help raise my kids.” He said many youth who care for animals become known for being respectful, attentive and responsible. “So I think that everyone in town needs to buy a cow,” he said.

On a serious note, he said that the industry and the state should invest in and do more research to introduce more mechanization into agricultural work. Farm and ranch labor is a worldwide concern, with many nations, not just the United States, having to import workers from other countries because native workers would prefer other types of work.

“When I talk to my chile growers, my former chile growers, what do they tell me? If we do not figure out how to mechanize chile harvesting, we are almost done,” Witte said.

Another major issue affecting the state industry is that producers export 97% of its raw products, he said, and businesses in other states process them into food, fibers or other goods, then import them back to sell to New Mexico consumers.

He said companies that focus on value-added agricultural manufacturing are much needed, which in Chaves County includes USA Beef Packing, a beef and bison processing plant, and Leprino Foods Co., a mozzarella cheese and dairy nutritional by-product manufacturer.

“We have opportunities in people like Joe (Madrid of USA Beef) who are stepping up and people like Leprino who are stepping up,” he said.

Another significant issue involves tariffs and trade disputes, which Witte said he thinks could be warranted to balance fair trade practices, but significantly affect agricultural producers. He also thinks water usage is a big concern.

“Can you guess what the largest irrigated crop is in the United States? Grass, your lawns, your parks,” Witte said. “Now when did we get as a society to the point where we are irrigating our lawns more than we are growing corn, wheat, soybeans, cattle, pecans and all those other things? Think about that when you think about who is using water.”

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.