For several decades running, a Rio Grande Valley newsletter has served as a dependable companion and guide to area farmers, bringing the latest ag news from across a region firmly rooted in crop production. Loaded with up-to-date information like insect populations, crop conditions and developing weather, subscribers anxiously anticipate each week’s new edition.
While the face of farming has changed in deep South Texas through the years, the newsletter, known far and wide as the Pest Cast, continues to inform area cotton and grain growers and remains in high demand by those who rely and trust the message it carries each week—delivered electronically and/or by mail.
“I first started editing the newsletter in the mid 70s, but it is possible it was started back in the late 1940s,” reports John Norman, retired entomologist with Texas AgriLife Extension. “Before me there was Jimmy Deere, and before that someone else and so on. I understand it was started by a grower somewhere before 1948 and eventually was taken over by the South Texas Cotton & Grain Association (STCGA) and eventually by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service in the Valley.”
That’s how Norman, once again the newsletter editor, became involved with Pest Cast. Norman began his Extension service career in 1973. The following year he was assigned to the Weslaco Extension center where he worked until he retired in 2004.
“I was raised on a Valley farm and was familiar with the newsletter before I ever took over the task of putting it out each week, so picking it back up in retirement was something I was qualified to do, and when friends at the STCGA asked if I would carry on the tradition, it was an easy decision,” he said.
Norman says he is dedicated to the tradition of farming and the people who spend their lives producing America’s crops. Now a crop consultant in the Valley, Norman still runs into dedicated readers of the newsletter. In fact, he says the information he assembles and includes in each issue comes from farmers, millers, buyers and consultants and others associated with cotton and grain farming in South Texas.
“But our reach goes beyond the boundaries of the Valley,” he explained. “Just about anyone who wants to keep up with the latest conditions of South Texas cotton or grain find the newsletter, now mostly delivered electronically over the Internet, an important source.”
A few calls across the Valley quickly confirmed the continuing popularity of the newsletter. Sam Simmons and son farm cotton and grain in the Harlingen-Rangerville area. Sam swears by the newsletter and says he looks forward to each new issue.
“It provides a broad overview about what other farmers in the Valley are doing—what they are experiencing. It gives me a heads up on what I might expect in my fields to know what’s happening down the road or across the county,” Simmons told Farm Press.
“I’ve been a subscriber since about the time John took over the editor post in the 1970s. I still read it each week and find it very helpful in keeping up with crops throughout my area.”
Jerry Chappell, who farms about 5,000 acres of cotton and grain in the Harlingen area, agrees the newsletter is an important tool. “I get a lot of information from each issue. During the drought I have found it interesting to keep up with the number of heat units reported historically on farms in my region and used that as a gauge. And knowing what insects are a problem for other area farmers gives me the chance to get ready for the possibility of having the same problem in my fields before long,” he said.
Chappell also follows the latest reports each week about the boll weevil eradication program in the Valley.
“It’s a useful tool that provides information about insects, crop progress and just about whatever you want to know about cotton and grain conditions in the Valley. My father subscribed to the newsletter years ago, and I do as well,” he added.
While Norman collects the raw data for each issue and puts in a form ready for publication, the Extension Center in Weslaco provides the printing services and sees that each subscriber receives the latest edition, a few of those still mailed through the U.S. Postal Service. While there are fewer farms and farmers in the Valley today, the number of subscribers continues to grow.
“We’re going to see cotton acres down in the Valley this year compared to last, and overall cotton and grain farming has been diminishing in the Valley over the last 30 years,” Norman said.
Thirty years ago the Valley produced between 300,000 to 400,000 acres of cotton. Last year about 200,000 acres were planted and this year that number dropped to about 130,000 acres.
“The truth is we are seeing a lot of farmers growing grain sorghum this year because of historically high prices. Cotton is down from last year and many farmers are betting on a better grain crop and one that has smaller input costs following a drought-stricken year,” Norman said.
But farming remains a tradition in the Valley. While acreage has been reduced as towns and cities gobble up more land, Norman foresees a future for both cotton and grain here and he admits that means a strong demand for Pest Cast.
To subscribe to Pest Cast, get on the list by calling the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at 956-968-5581, or by email at [email protected]. Both the online and the mailed subscriptions are free.