In El Paso County, Dairy Farming Ban Takes a Heavy Toll

 

On most mornings, Eugene Licon drives 50 miles from his cows in Hudspeth County to his El Paso County cheese factory, shouldering extra fuel costs and man-hours that were not always required.

His dairy and cheese factory were once a few yards apart, before the Legislature’s 2001 ban on dairy farming permits in El Paso County and a sliver of Hudspeth County — a result of recurring cases of bovine tuberculosis in the West Texas area.

The ban and ensuing eradication of the dairy farms, which had been a $41 million-a-year business, have significantly affected agricultural interests in the community. Now, a lawmaker wants to repeal the ban. But even so, a major comeback is not expected.

The lawmaker, Representative Mary González, Democrat of Clint, filed legislation this month to repeal the ban on dairy permits in the area and to form a commission to research the presence of bovine TB in Mexico, where many agricultural officials suspect the bacterial disease originated.

“We know that the bovine tuberculosis was not found once they eradicated the dairy farms, and now Mexico’s status, when it comes to tuberculosis, is improving,” Ms. González said. “It’s important for us to at least investigate bringing back dairy farms.”

Throughout the 1990s, dairies in El Paso County struggled to control the disease, which can be transmitted to humans. The Texas Animal Health Commission was unable to trace the source of the bovine TB.

The commission classified the El Paso area a “high-risk zone” for bovine tuberculosis in 2000. And in 2002, the United States Department of Agriculture no longer characterized Texas as being bovine tuberculosis-free, an action that restricted cattle movement across state lines and increased cattle testing.

In 2003, the U.S.D.A., the Texas Animal Health Commission and El Paso dairy farmers agreed to an estimated $44 million deal to buy out 11 dairies in El Paso, eradicate the cattle and isolate the farmland for 20 years. In 2006, Texas regained its bovine tuberculosis-free status.

The buyout dealt a heavy blow to El Paso County, eliminating jobs and crop diversification for farmers who supplied dairies with feed, said Orlando Flores, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agent. (Texas A&M University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune.)

“Our valley supported the dairy industry because we could grow alfalfa, corn, wheat, whatever the dairies needed,” he said. “We had to revert back to growing nothing but cotton.”

Over all, the Texas dairy industry is not doing well because of a drought driving up feed costs. Last year, 11 percent of dairies went out of business. Darren Turley, the executive director of the Texas Association of Dairymen, said that even if the ban were repealed, “the conditions of the dairy industry in Texas are still not strong enough to expect a lot of expansion.”

Ms. González acknowledged that her legislation is “the first step of a long process,” and said she does not expect dairies to return immediately. But if they do, she hopes they will “at least consider my home as a possible place to set their roots.”


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