An agriculture listening session took place on April 2, 2019 at the Grant County Veterans Memorial Business and Conference Center.
Hosted by County Director and Family and Consumer Sciences Agent Judy O'Loughlin and 4-H Ag Agent Jessica Swapp, the panel consisted of the New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture Jeff Witte and New Mexico State University Dean of the College of Agriculture, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences Rolando A. Flores.
"This is our third year of holding listening sessions around the state," Witte said. "It's a time for us to listen and you all to talk. It's an interesting time for ag right now, with the trade issues, the new Farm Bill and the new Waters of the U.S. We have a lot of opportunities. I just signed the first protective rules for hemp, although we are not the first state to have them. I'm one of the most anti-government guys you've ever met. But I have no problem with the production of hemp."
Flores said he has served as the NMSU ACES dean for 2 ½ years. "Thank you for voting on Bond D. It will be good for NMSU. We will be able to expand. We will have a feed mill and a bio-medical facility. The funding is enough to get us started, plus we are raising $10 million more."
He said that hemp is all about value-added production. "The university has gone through an interesting time. We have a new administration and a new president. Both are going fast. We have a strategic plan that I encourage everyone to look at. We have a search for a provost, and we're waiting for the last signatures on legislation. We are grateful for the support for ag from the legislators. We can bring issues forward to address them."
Ty Bays said the residents in southern New Mexico have an issue at the border that affects agriculture.
"In a tuberculosis study done 15 years ago, it showed that TB can move from livestock to people and back to livestock," Bays said. "What is NMDA doing about it? The illegals coming across the border are getting into our water tanks. It could spread from there."
"I've addressed the issue with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Homeland Security," Witte said. "We're pretty remote, but I see photos of trash left behind. We've been training private veterinarians as alert vets every year. It gives us more capacity. We try to educate the Border Patrol not to leave the trash behind and why. Right now, they are overwhelmed. Foot-and-mouth disease can also be carried on shoes for up to seven days, and it can live in lungs up to 14 days. It's not a new issue. And it's not just an issue along the border. We see it at the international airports in New York City, as well as Albuquerque International Airport. Illegal immigration is more than a people issue. It's an economic issue. If diseases come across at the port of entry at Santa Teresa, how many cattle come across there?"
Bays noted that the cattle are tested.
Witte agreed, but not the people. "But at Antelope Wells, they are testing people, too. We have to be vigilant. Good worker hygiene is important."
Bays said: "If guys come across and infect my herd, the only option I have is to kill them all and I'm out of business. For foot-and-mouth disease, you shoot them and bury them. We need to look for funding to address these issues."
Flores said the time for easy answers is gone. "It's important for you to bring these issues to us."
"If you think of ramifications," Witte said, "look at the flooding in the Midwest. There is not enough funding to take care of those animal and crop losses. I only use that example to compare in size. Our issue here is higher."
Bays said: "The government can stop our issue, but they choose not to."
Flores said sometimes "we're not prepared. Ag is at stake here. Ag is food. One of you serves at least 140 people. We are working hard on agricultural literacy. We're hoping that what you said doesn't happen."
Witte said he flies to Dallas a lot. "What we have here may not be perfect, but we've kept out a lot of diseases. People come from all over the world, and we go overseas and come back. It's amazing we don't have more plant and animal diseases transmitted."
Cari Lemon asked if there were a model to address these issues.
Witte said: "The rules and regulations are made for the 98 percent who comply. It's the two percent who don't cross at the port of entry that are the problem. When they are caught by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), the agents try to find out where the person came from. We rely on honesty."
David Gurule of La Esperanza Winery said, when he traveled to Argentina, when they landed, their luggage was checked and sprayed.
Witte said, in El Paso, they test for fungus. Sometimes, people presume it's for bomb residue.
Dusty Hunt asked about the new Waters of the U.S. "The Environmental Protection Agency redefined ephemeral streams and tributaries, but a lot in New Mexico would be left to the state to determine."
Right now, because of a lawsuit, some are still under the old rules. "The EPA, as I understand it, is leaving more decisions to the states to evaluate what the status of the waters are," Witte said. "I had a call with EPA, and most cities and counties said the new rules are workable and allow cities to do vector control and other activities."
Hunt asked if land was adjacent to an ephemeral stream, "a dry wash, can you push up a berm without a 404 permit?"
Witte said he thinks so. "The comment period is continuing through April 15. It's a federal proposal under the EPA."
Stewart Rooks said he sees problems with greasewood, which is prevalent in Hidalgo, Luna, Doña Ana and Sierra Counties. "It's starting to creep into Grant County. Where it grows thick, there is no grass. Is it up to the landowner to control it? What if it's not just on private land but on state and federal lands. Are there any active programs to control it?"
A man representing the National Resource and Conservation Districts said the NRCS has cost share amounts to address the issue. "There is a continuous sign up."
Rooks asked if a rancher has a permit for BLM or state land, "is it still up to me to pay the match?"
The NRCS man said: "Come to us and we'll work with the BLM and state. I suggest you stop by the office, and we'll get a game plan going."
Witte noted that the Restore NM program matches NRCS funding.
It was mentioned that Socorro County has been able to treat greasewood and BLM stepped in to help.
Hunt said that in Eddy County, more than a million acres of creosote bush have been sprayed. "It was a concerted effort to get groups together and there was money available to address it."
"Between creosote and noxious weeds, there is work to do," Witte said.
Tom Deans of Extension at NMSU said that the soil and water conservation districts also possibly have funding available.
A man said he was on the committee to talk about hemp. "We have already secured producers willing to put in hemp. Can we get information on hemp production?"
Flores said it is necessary to get a permit from the NMDA. "Set up a group of colleagues and look for publications from other states. We have no previous history on hemp at the college. There is a new position in Farmington for hemp, but it will be too late for this year. Find publications, work through Tom and get them reproduced in the state. Whatever we can do to help, let us know. Another thing we are doing is piggybacking hemp in the proposed Centers for Excellence and Sustainability that the governor is working on. We don't need to reinvent the wheel. We're trying to jump on the train going 100 miles per hour. Find anything available. There is no week that we don't have a group of farmers wanting to go into hemp. There has to be some specialist somewhere."
Deans said NMSU would hold a hemp conference on May 23 and 24 at the Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum for a $125 fee. "NMDA will be there, the Environmental Department is covering the production side, and a fellow is coming from Nevada."
Witte said hemp had passed through the Board of Regents and started a hemp program in December. "We are in the process of permitting. We have more than 100 doing indoor growing. The outside growing hasn't started yet. The Acequia Association held a hemp conference and more than 200 were there. They had to turn away about 150."
Flores said the university will provide a lot of value-added product information. "We have packaged it into the Centers for Excellence. The conference in May is a big step. Anything you can find out is encouraged. The major goal is to provide training and support to the ones who want to jump onto the train. In Colorado, they had to burn 60 percent of the crops, because it had higher levels of the intoxicating elements, and there was no market."
Alicia Edwards said Doug Fine in the Mimbres is a hemp expert.
Gurule thanked Flores for getting someone to be a viniculturalist at the university.
Witte noted that getting labor is increasingly difficult around the world, especially in the agricultural industry. "In Mexico, the Guatemalans are picking apples in Chihuahua. In Guatemala, the labor is coming from Colombia. In Malaysia, the labor is from India. In Vietnam, they have automated milk production. They could employ 300, but they have only 30. I tell people that the labor they have is all they'll ever have. A fellow was trying to form a farm workers' union, but there was no labor. A producer of chile in Deming has, as his No. 1 issue, the finding of people to pick the chile. We'll have to move from creating labor into creating technology. We're at the breaking point."
Flores echoed the problem of labor. "The NMDA brought a group of ranchers from Sonora last year. They do not have labor. They have to figure out creative ways to handle the cattle. They have to bring in some Native Americans from the Sierra. They work for three weeks and the next morning they are gone. They don't even take the pay. It puts the college at a crossroads. In our role we need to figure out how to do the same level of production or greater with less labor. Technology is managing more cattle with fewer people. Ranchers use drones to know where the cattle are, how much water they drink and how many pounds of grass they eat. We have to be joined together with more interaction—extension, research and academic. No more siloes. We need to solve within the next year, how to mechanically harvest chile."
David McSherry said it sounds like a need for agricultural engineering. "So those who produce the plants can package them more efficiently, not by hand labor. We have to change the methods in the production plants. How are you using GIS in everything? I wish every student would learn GIS to archive, share and present information."
"You hit the nail on the head," Flores said. "We need to integrate the data and the genetics with the production methods. The number of chile crops are going down. I visited a facility in Queretaro, where they had 200 acres of covered greenhouse where they produced and packaged cherry tomatoes and packages of peppers. The sanitation was extremely high. They use water and labor and the density of the plants is big. The production is gigantic. Products are not simple anymore. That is part of the college's strategic plan. We are putting all the funding at the college in one pot. Programs have to apply for it, and it has to have economic benefit. We have 64 proposals for doing restructural changes at the college, as well as staff changes." He said on May 1, Don Connor from Auburn University is coming to look at NMSU's academic program. "He was able to create relationships with producers. So, one of our goals is that every undergraduate student has had a internship experience, has had an opportunity for a global experience and has had experience with entrepreneurial training, like what you are, farmers and ranchers. When we went to college, we studied to be an employee of someone; now we need to build our own businesses."
Scott Terry asked if there were chances to look outside the box when it comes to education. "Instead of four to five years of college, how about a two-year certificate, so a student doesn't end up 100s of thousands of dollars in debt?"
Flores replied that because four years of education is not for everyone, a community college is a good option. "Our great advantage is that we have four community colleges associated with NMSU. The student can attend the community college and can continue into a four-year program if he chooses."
Terry noted that when he lived in Nebraska, many of the small farmers were becoming corporate.
"Most farms and ranches in New Mexico are still family-owned," Witte said. "In the 2012 ag census, New Mexico grew its family operations, sometimes splitting the land up inside families. There is no difference between small and large, when you have technology. We saw growth. Our number 1 growth was in young farmers under the age of 34."
Flores said that in northern New Mexico, the characteristic is small farmers, and not the traditional farmers. Someone can have five acres of a crop. "They can work the market in Santa Fe, which is a sophisticated market. They need support, technology and marketing help."
Witte noted that the producers in New Mexico are an average of 60.5 years of age. "Those from 75 to 80 years old are looking at retirement. Many ag people don't retire." On a similar issue, he asked rhetorically: "How many miles do you have where you can't get cell service? We need better broadband connectivity. They need to use blockchain technology. If they can't connect, the producers will have a problem. If they can't get 1X or 3G or LTE, they will have a problem, whether as a vegetable grower or a cattle grower."
Rooks agreed. "As a person who works in telecommunications, cell service is a continuing problem. On average, a new cell tower is located about every five to seven years. We provide the backbone. We keep pushing broadband further out. We have challenges, from terrain to permitting. The Department of Transportation is fairly fast to work with. The Forest Service varies, and BLM is a nightmare. It's a huge challenge to get broadband and cellular service to rural areas. I would be amazed if, in my lifetime, they get cell service at Beaverhead, for instance."
Witte said he believes that technology will surpass "our capacity of agriculture. We need to be developing technology to make everything better. We can't do it."
Flores said it would take creativity.
"New Mexico is so fortunate to have the extension system we have," Witte said. "Don't ever take your extension service for granted."
Flores said NMSU has 12 science centers. "We have a review committee evaluating them. Due to the budget, we were looking to close one. The economic impact was large. We need more interaction among the centers. Now, Clayton is open again. We are having a lot of unique things, a lot of good things going on in New Mexico."
Hunt said that David Ramos had set up an irrigation system, because he wanted to raise chile, but then there was the labor issue. "He went to alfalfa. He wants that mechanical chile harvester, so he can go to growing chile."
Witte said the chile harvester is still "a challenge."
Gurule noted that it takes two to three people to bottle wine.
"In Italy, the forklift drivers are all automated."
Witte said it's all market driven to secure data. "The issue with blockchain is that everyone wants their own piece of the data. Traceability is the issue, so a restaurant can say that this steak came from your ranch. We are asking the salsa producer to use the blockchain system for traceability of the ingredients."
He said one of his rants lately is that "we are good at regulating the past, but not at regulating the future. In Canada, they have automated dairies, but it doesn't pass the U.S. regulations. I made a comment to the USDA that if they wanted to solve the traceability issue, 'that's easy, get out of our way.' Industry is developing faster than government is."
Flores said agriculture is very important for the university. "The chair of the board of regents is a rancher. He knows ag; he knows extension."
The session ended with no more questions.