Top 10 agriculture stories in 2017

The Tribune-Herald asked representatives of the Waco-based Texas Farm Bureau, the Texas Department of Agriculture and the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service to pick their top 10 ag-related stories for 2017, with emphasis on events that impacted farmers and ranchers statewide.

The list reflects the opinions of Department of Agriculture spokesman Mark Loeffler, Texas Farm Bureau spokesman Gene Hall, AgriLife Extension spokesman Blair Fannin, and Luis Ribera, an associate professor and director of AgriLife’s Center for North American Studies at Texas A&M University.

1. Panhandle wildfires claimed four lives, killed at least 2,500 head of cattle, and inflicted an estimated $21 million in damage to pastureland, fencing, buildings, corrals, and emergency hay and feed, according to AgriLife.

The people who died were honored at the Texas Agriculture Memorial Day, and Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller approved financial assistance through the State of Texas Agriculture Relief Fund.

2. Leaving cotton bales hanging from the top branches of trees, drowning livestock and swamping soybean and rice crops, Hurricane Harvey inflicted an estimated $200 million in damage to ag-related operations in 54 counties near the Gulf Coast, according to reports by AgriLife and Loeffler.

3. Feral swine continue to wreak havoc on cropland and public lands, and even pose a threat to humans. Loeffler said he recently posted a report “on a fatal car crash caused by a wild hog.”

Solutions have proved elusive. Miller approved using a warfarin-based bait called Kaput to poison the wild animals, but the public and Texas Legislature responded with outrage over unknowns related to the poison. The manufacturer pulled the product, and it was “shelved indefinitely,” Loeffler said.

A sodium-nitrate-based poison is now being field tested in West Texas, Loeffler said. The Texas Farm Bureau had endorsed the use of Kaput, Hall said.

4. For the first time since 2003, China agreed to accept beef exports from the United States, “which is a huge success for Texas cattle ranchers,” Loeffler said in an emal response to questions.

“Beef cattle prices are very strong, and that’s attributed to increased export demand,” Ribera said.

5. Hall and Loeffler both applauded the federal government’s decision to “place a stake through the heart” of the Waters of the U.S. rule.

Under President Donald Trump’s direction, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a proposal to repeal the rule, which expanded the definition of waters that could be federally regulated.

6. Talk of the United States walking away from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which promotes the flow of goods between the United States, Mexico and Canada, prompted an outcry from voices in agriculture around the state who say the move would prove catastrophic.

“It’s a treaty signed in 1994, and it could stand improvement, but it has done what it was supposed to do,” Ribera said. “It has quadrupled exports to our neighbors to the north and south, and it means a year-round supply of fresh and safe products such as avocados, tomatoes, limes and other produce only grown seasonally in this country.”

7. The appointment of former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue to oversee the U.S. Department of Agriculture received rave reviews and the endorsement of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“He’ll lead the fight on the next farm bill and has promised less regulation and more communication with ag industry,” Loeffler said.

8. Cotton growers and wine producers continued their battle over the use of dicamba, a powerful weed-killer approved by the EPA but the target of complaints from farmers who say “dicamba drift” can damage crops.

“There were advancements in new formulas intended to cut down on drift, but this will remain an issue,” Loeffler said.

9. Landowners and the federal government reached a settlement over the use of land on the Texas side of the Red Rivers. Farmers and ranchers had worked the land for decades, but the federal Bureau of Land Management started surveying the acreage a few years ago and claimed agreements dating to the Louisiana Purchase gave the federal government control of the land.

10. The “farm-to-table” movement has continued to gain traction, as restaurants and commercial enterprises demand products directly from producers. Loeffler said farmers and ranchers are seeing benefits.

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