The El Paso Times – State Rep. Mary Gonzalez
State Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, wants to bring dairy farms that were plagued by disease back to West Texas.
The return of the farms would have a positive domino effect on the region’s economy, Gonzalez said Saturday during an agricultural forum at the Texas A&M El Paso Agri Life Research and Extension Center, 1380 A&M Circle.
Gonzalez and several experts on agriculture spoke to a group of about 20 farmers. Gonzalez also encouraged farmers to diversify their crops and examine other means of irrigation.
“We think it’s a huge possibility and a strong possibility for studies to be conducted whether bovine TB (tuberculosis) is still accurate,” Gonzalez said. “This (ban) was determined more than 10 years ago, but science has changed so much so we have a lot of support of at least investigating the possibility of having dairy farms in El Paso again.”
According to El Paso Times archives, the Department of Agriculture in 2000 bought out nine dairy farms in El Paso County and one near Hudspeth County as a result of bovine tuberculosis. Dairy farms have been banned in El Paso County since 2001.
Over the years, the majority of El Paso’s dairies reported cases of the disease, which health officials suspected came from infected cows in Mexico.
But that was more than a decade ago, Gonzalez said.
“We have to ask ourselves: There are dairy farms across the state, border and New Mexico and they are TB-free,” Gonzalez said. “They
have dairy farms in Hudspeth County. Diseases don’t know boundaries. So if there aren’t TB in our neighbors’ (farms), then we could probably safely assume that there won’t be bovine TB here.”
Before the ban, El Paso County was producing about 5 percent of the the nation’s milk, which brought about $40 million into the county.
The dairy farms allowed farmers to have more crop rotations, which would keep the soil healthy and allow for the growth of multiple crops including alfalfa, grains, barley, milo, cotton and pecans.
Now farmers are mostly planting alfalfa, pecans and cotton without rotating as often, which damages the soil.
Farmer Rudy Avila said that the dairy farms help produce a healthy economy and healthy soil in the El Paso region. With the dairy farms, there would be reason to produce other crops and have farmers raise pigs again, he said.
“We are losing farmland,” Avila said. “If you think back 30 to 40 years ago, they were planting a lot of barley, wheat, milo, alfalfa and cotton. Now it’s just cotton, pecans and a little bit of alfalfa, and you can’t use that land just for those (crops). The alfalfa fields are very grassy now because they try to keep them year after year without rotating the crops.”
Jaime Iglesias, county extension agent for agriculture and Natural resources for Texas A&M, said that farmers in the El Paso area should also start looking into producing other crops that fare well in desert areas.
Iglesias suggested that farmers capitalize on Jujube date trees, pomegranates, mulberry, grapes, apples and peaches.
Small livestock, such as chicken, goats and sheep, would also produce revenue for farmers in the area, he said.
“The market is there,” Iglesias said. “There are 1.1 billion people that live in India and 1.4 billion people that live in China. We need to look into these markets and see who else is living in this area. There is a lot of demand for this kind of produce we’re not used to growing because of Fort Bliss.”
But all these possibilities revolve around the water and irrigation in the region.
Last year, the drought resulted in the lost of 50 percent of the area’s crops, Gonzalez said.
“We need to make sure that we are proactive and reactive to our water needs,” she said. “So we are looking into some possible solutions such as drip irrigation, among others.”
Gonzalez will present her arguments regarding dairy farms in the El Paso region on March 13 to the Agricultural and Livestock Committee in Austin.