Like most years, 2013 offered a mixed bag of good and not-so-good news and developments for agriculture across the American Southwest. From feast to famine, so to speak, positive and negative developments affected people and profits on the farm and ranch.
At the end of 2013 many of us will be looking ahead with hopes of discovering ways we can make the new year a better one, both in terms of personal and professional gain. But most of us, or as my father would say, the most wise of us, will no doubt be looking back over our accomplishments and shortcomings of the past 12 months in hopes of being better prepared for what may come.
Some things, of course, we cannot change. Topping the list of the most important developments for Southwest agriculture this year has probably been the change in the weather, one of those developments that simply happens beyond our control.
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While drought conditions still rule in many areas and water, or the lack thereof, remains a high and pressing priority for all of agriculture, for many the return of more normal rain patterns has been a major break in a long-term drought. The rains may not last, but for at least some, a reversal of drought conditions has saved the farm.
This is certainly true for alfalfa growers in southern New Mexico. Even across large areas of the Southwest, late summer and substantial fall rains have made the difference between making money or losing it, even if the rains fell short of enough or too late to boost profits. At least for now, thanks to the rains of 2013, many farmers and ranchers are expressing a degree of hope for the new year.
On the down side of the water issue, however, rice farmers in Coastal Texas continue to fight with both nature and urban-backed politicians who seem to be doing everything they can to cancel senior water rights of agriculture in Texas in favor of washing cars, greening yards and floating recreational boats at the Highland Lakes of Texas.
It's not the only region still concerned about water. The Southern Plains remained concerned about ample water for irrigation and dryland farmers from the Coastal Bend and Texas Rio Grande Valley to the Texas Winter Garden region, along with livestock producers and farmers in West Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, are all still concerned about water availability simply because even if it rained a lot in your rural neighborhood this year, it's still probably not enough to last through 2014.
When it comes to rivers, lakes, and stock and irrigation tanks, water remains one of the best and worst developments of the last year, depending on where you farm or ranch and how the weather fared.
In spite of the weather
In the area of worst news story, at the top of the list we must remember West, Texas, where a tragic fertilizer explosion claimed lives, threatened agriculture and greatly hampered economic stability of an entire region, and presented rippling problems and issues for agriculture.
Some 60 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded April 17 at a fertilizer plant, killing 15 people, injuring 160 others and damaging or destroying more than 150 buildings in the small, central Texas town, changing lives and livelihoods for hundreds more. Investigators are still trying to determine exactly what went wrong.
The tragedy has raised many questions about the safety of fertilizer storage, specifically ammonium nitrate, highly explosive when exposed to fire. In a state where agriculture is central to the rural economy, lawmakers have rallied emergency authorities to prepare for such events, but no laws have been passed to address the storage problem of liquid fertilizers. At best the incident continues to concern all who work with or depend on volatile chemicals in support of farming and ranching.
The mystery of politics and farming
Perhaps topping the list of the most misunderstood developments in all of agriculture this past year was the lack of substantial farm legislation in our nation's Capitol. Yep, this was on last year's list as well, so perhaps it is no surprise farmers and ranchers all across America are still looking for a resolution to this remarkable problem.
The current farm bill delay has ag producers far and wide wondering if Congress even has the ability to reach a consensus on how to protect and promote farming and ranching in the years ahead—or if they care. As the new year looms, most of us are hoping for and leaning on the continuing rhetoric that a new farm bill will be passed shortly after Congress returns from their long holiday breaks. In truth, few farmers and ranchers are putting a great deal of stock in a permanent and substantial solution to the many issues facing agriculture in the year ahead.
Also like my father used to say, it's a good thing rural folks are so downright optimistic about life and living and so positive about such important things as growing crops and sustaining livestock.
Biggest faux pas of the year
It would be difficult if not impossible to create a list of best and worst for agriculture over the last year without at least mentioning that big publicity campaign underway over the safety of and health concerns of American grown food products.
The politics of food have been heating up rigorously throughout the year and a war has broken out between major food companies and commodity advocacy groups. At issue, which is safer and more nutritious—commercially-grown food crops or organic foods?
Never mind there is little to no control over what can be labeled “organic” and that the real fight is over one group of growers taking on another group of larger and better financed growers. And while you're at it, forget about scientific tests and substantial evidence that proves definitively not only what is good and healthy to eat but also what type of farming keeps food costs down and availability up for millions who otherwise would not have access to affordable food if spreading unsubstantiated fears were the proper basis for making our food decisions.
More problems of 2013
Also making our list of unfortunate developments for Southwest ag producers is the closing of the Cargill processing plant in Plainview, Texas, and the continued closure and eventual bankruptcy filing of the Sunland Peanut Plant in Portales, New Mexico.
In Plainview, the continuing drought forced Cargill to reorganize plant strategies, while the Portales case involved a nationwide salmonella outbreak that was tied back to the nation's largest organic peanut butter plant. In both instances farmers and ranchers have been adversely affected and forced to make mid-season changes in the way they farm and ranch.
Also related to a third season of serious to extreme drought conditions, cotton and grain growers from the Rio Grande Valley north along the Texas coast to the cotton producing fields of the Coastal Bend, usually a major cotton region, were forced to plow under what few crops managed to break ground. The same can be said for many wheat growers and vegetable growers in west Central Texas.
Peach growers in Central Texas also fell victim to either drought conditions or hail and wind storms late in the season, not to mention a late spring frost which didn't help. Many wheat growers also were adversely affected by changing weather conditions in parts of the Southwest.
Water treaty issues on the border
It wasn't just the lack of rainfall that cost some growers a successful year. Back in Deep South Texas, Mexican water officials are being blamed for failing to deliver water according to terms of a long standing international water treaty.
The implications and aggravation of a serious and spiraling water shortage in the border region represented the latest in growing tensions between the people and cultures of two nations. By late spring, Valley communities were being told the serious water crisis there could force city water departments to run out of water before summer's end. There was virtually no irrigation water for citrus growers and farmers could only rely on dryland crops for almost all of the growing season.
With two years of ongoing drought and water treaty issues with Mexico, it's no surprise that planted crop acres are down as cattle herds continue to shrink across South Texas, forcing lawmakers, community leaders, and representatives of business and industry to contemplate the impossible—life on the frontier without enough water to sustain it.
According to the 69-year old water treaty between the two countries, Mexico is required to release water from the Rio Conchos in exchange for water released from the Pecos River basin by the United States. To be specific, according to Texas water officials, Mexico is required to release 1.75 million acre-feet of water to the U.S. over a five-year cycle. Many Texas and U.S. lawmakers are saying the treaty calls for the release of a minimum of 350,000 acre feet of water each year of the five-year cycle.
As 2013 comes to a close, South Texas farms and ranches are still waiting for water deliveries that seem to never come.
Looking Ahead to 2014: A Big Year for State Politics & Agriculture
There were other good turns and bad turns for agriculture in 2013, but with all eyes now on 2014, of special interest to Texas producers will be the future direction of the Texas Agriculture Department. It will be an election year and while current Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples is running for Lt. Governor, his old job will be handed off to one of a field of 11 candidates seeking to replace him.
The frontrunners appear to be Uvalde Mayor, farmer and businessman, Republican J. Allen Carnes, opposed by high profile Democrat candidate Kinky Friedman. You can expect a lot of fireworks between the field of eleven who are seeking the nomination and election to the office.