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Todd Staples: The TT Interview

The Texas commissioner of agriculture on the "catastrophic" devastation he's seen from the worst one-year drought in recorded Texas history, what the feds and state are doing and what needs to happen to cope with a potential multiyear drought.

Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, Todd Staples - August 29, 2011.

Todd Staples has seen easier days. Now in his second term as Texas agriculture commissioner, Staples is coping with a full-blown crisis as the worst one-year drought in the state's history drags on, destroying crops and forcing ranchers to sell their livestock, unless they can afford to import hay from states as far away as South Dakota.

Staples holds an agricultural economics degree from Texas A&M University and has long been involved with Future Farmers of America. He got his start in politics at age 25 when he ran for city council in the East Texas town of Palestine, where he was born and raised. Later he served in both the Texas House and the Senate before being elected agriculture commissioner for the first time in 2006 (he was re-elected last year).

Staples spoke to the Tribune about the devastation he's seeing around Texas. The state and the feds are trying to help, but fundamentally, Staples says, "When it comes to short-term for agriculture, there are not many options." Except rain.

This interview was edited and slightly condensed for clarity.

TT: Where have you traveled recently within the state, and what are you seeing in terms of the drought?

Staples: Well, I had two unique experiences last week. I flew into both San Angelo and the Rio Grande Valley. And when I flew into San Angelo and you look out the window it looks like wintertime — solid brown except for green treetops. And that's pretty indicative of the entire state. But the other extreme was the Rio Grande Valley and McAllen and Mercedes and Brownsville and South Padre Island for the Texas produce convention. And there's actually green grass and cows grazing that aren't just struggling for every blade of grass. And so it was refreshing to see that at least one small area of Texas for at least another week or two has some green grass to be able to survive. But it is truly catastrophic what I've seen across Texas.

TT: $5.2 billion of losses — and counting.

Staples: And counting. And that is a very conservative number because it really only covers the livestock losses of a little in excess of $2 billion, cotton of about $1.8 billion, lost hay of around $750 [million], and then I think corn and maybe some grain sorghum. It doesn't include produce and vegetables. It doesn't include citrus and other row crops. So that's only a snapshot. And with each passing day, it gets worse. And I was at the Dallas farmers market, I think it was their 75th anniversary, earlier this year, and I was talking to some produce growers in different regions. And the intense heat is what has made this year and this drought cycle — I think it's what led Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon [the state climatologist] to conclude that this is the worst single-year drought in history, with the lack of moisture coupled with the intense, intense, just depredating heat that we're facing.

TT: One thing I've been wondering is what percent of farmers — farmers and ranchers — have insurance?

Staples: Well, that's the good news. That many of them will be able to survive potentially through this on the row crop side of things because there is a well-established crop insurance when it comes to cotton and corn and grain sorghum. Livestock and dairy, though, there is no insurance. One dairy farmer ... earlier this year, I met with her, and she said, "We're paying $300 a ton for alfalfa," and I said, "Really, what did you pay last winter?" And she said, "$185 [per ton], and we were crying then." And that was early, early in the summer. My little small operation that I still have in East Texas, I paid like $252 [per ton] for range cubes, and then I bought some along through early in the summer, and the last I paid was like $322 per ton. So producers in the beef cattle industry have never gotten out of the winter cycle. They've just gone from feeding in cold weather to feeding in hot weather.

TT: What are you hearing from back home in Palestine?

Staples: Devastating. Many producers have actually liquidated their herds — just carried everything they have to the sale barns, because [they were struggling to find hay and were running out of pasture]. And it was kind of a methodical process. Some early on saw it happening and read the weather forecast accurately and said, "Look, you can't survive this." Others like me were optimistic, thinking one day without rain means closer to rain one day away, and so we would keep our hay pastures that we don't graze on in wintertime, we'd turn out cattle in there and rotate them in and out, waiting for it to rain. And it never rained. And so they'd  just actually — start carrying their heavier calves to sale and then the younger, lighter weight calves to sale, and then culled cows to the sale, and then you'd get into your breeding stock. It's passed onto generations sometimes, those genetics, that are gone now.

TT: Talk to me about what the state and the feds are doing to assist.

Staples: Couple of different fronts. The disaster declarations have been forthcoming. The feds have released the Conservation Reserve Program lands in some areas for emergency grazing and haying. Low-interest loans are available through the federal programs. Loans don't mean that much in these difficult circumstances because the ability to pay back has just been decimated. I mean, to say this is a crisis is a true understatement to the men and women who are struggling every day to manage through these circumstances.

And before I talk about what the state's doing, I might point out that droughts of this nature, the worst in this state's history, are just unplanned, unexpected, unwelcome natural disasters. Texas has a great record of tracking hurricanes coming in and taking precautions to mitigate the damage and the chaos that ensues. But something of this nature is just truly catastrophic of unprecedented proportions, and so there's no amount of planning that you can prepare for. So you do have to manage through it.

But nonetheless we are doing things that are of a temporary nature. We have a new and expanded hay hotline that is bringing information together of hay sellers, grazing lands that are available. They're not in Texas but in other parts of the country. [Information on transportation providers is included, too.] We have modernized that hay hotline to include those new elements, and we've also included pricing and weights in there that hasn't been in there previously. This is coming down to staying in business or just completely getting out for the foreseeable future. And so knowing the tonnage and the cost and the quality of hay is very important when you determine whether to ship it in or not.

TT: Some [ranchers] I talked to several weeks ago in San Angelo at a cattle auction — I asked them about the hay hotline and they said, "Well it's not very useful because nobody's got hay." And so how do you deal with that?

Staples: We've reached out with A lot of [hay providers] are from out of state even. I recently sent a letter to every commissioner or director or secretary of agriculture in the United States asking them to promote our hay hotline, to get their sellers of hay to put their information on there where [Texans] can have access to it. We've asked for hay waivers, and Gov. Perry has been responsive. And now Louisiana, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas and South Dakota have all either enacted hay waivers (or I think Nebraska had regulations that were similar) that relieves height and weight restrictions so you can get more hay. Because the biggest cost, where there is a surplus of hay, is just the transportation cost of getting it to Texas.

TT: So we're transporting hay from South Dakota to Texas?

Staples: Yes. Yes. It's just unbelievable.

TT: How much does that cost? 

Staples: Too much. Really too much for the economics to work out for any time period. And now, what is it, almost Sept. 1, the growing season is getting shorter. Even urban Texans know — it's getting darker longer in the mornings when they wake up and it's getting darker earlier in the evening. ... So if it starts raining today, we're still in a world of hurt when it comes to having the available resources we need. Right now farmers are preparing their wheat pastures, their winter wheat pastures, that are so important to the Texas livestock industry to graze these feeder cattle to get them up to a good weight before they put them in the feedlots, and without any moisture — I mean, it's so bad. Earlier this year, early, we had 2 million acres of dry-land cotton that was abandoned. Even irrigated crops in some instances have been abandoned this year. 

TT: The state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon, said that we are likely to be at the start of a multiyear drought. If this goes on, are there any other tools in the toolbox, so to speak, to help farmers and ranchers around the state. 

Staples: Weathermen have not been my best friend this year. Each weather prediction — forecast — extends it even further til now even to 2012. One thing that's important in this state is that the Legislature passed Proposition 2 that's going to be on ballot this November that will allow for a self-funded revolving bond that will be administered by the Texas Water Development Board. And this is really for municipalities and communities and and water districts. Because now over 800 water providers have issued restrictions, and that number's going to continue to grow.

But when it comes to short term for agriculture, there are not many options. I mean, that's the short of it. The long of it — research has led the way where am consumers enjoy the most reliable, the safest and the most affordable food supply than anywhere in the world. We have drought-tolerant crops, greater yields have been made available through research. Our extension system is phenomenal because it takes data and puts it in the hands of farmers and ranchers, who use those production practices and techniques [of which] we're a major exporter. And it's a big part of our economy, it's a big part of jobs. Rural communities are being crippled today because there's no production. No production means no tires are bought. New tractors aren't bought. New pickups aren't bought. New clothes aren't bought. These are dire circumstances in many ares.

TT: Will the Texas agriculture sector be able to recover from this drought, and ... how long will recovery take? And will some people just get out of the business to stay out?

Staples: This will end the agriculture careers of some operators. Some families will be abandoning what was generations of production. But the real answer is that Texans are survivors. Texans have a heritage of overcoming difficult circumstances and being stronger than ever before. The sheer size of this state, and the diverse environmental conditions creates challenges. Our farmers and ranchers face political battles across the seas that close export markets to our products. They face policy battles internally that presents challenges. And they faced — we haven't even talked about the wildfire consequences associated with this drought. The latest numbers I saw from the Forest Service indicates that almost 20,000 different wildfires have been battled since this season began, scorching over 3.5 million acres, which, by the way, is equivalent to the combined acreage in ... several Northeastern states.

TT: I talked to, again, the state climatologists, and scientists are saying that climate change could make droughts like this worse — hotter and dryer.

Staples: And that's a reality of what we face. We know the climate changes. And we know that we're experiencing one of the hottest cycles of recorded history and for a prolonged period. And hopefully we will cycle out of this, back to several years of cooler temperatures that allows us to overcome and to get production practices. But it requires us to plan. And I think Texans in the 1950s recognized this. ... If you will remember there was a massive buildup in the '50s of water supplies. Because we were in a crisis. Our population then was ... substantially less than it was today. So we built up available water supplies per capita that positioned us well and we had a continual rise of available water per capita until we got to the '70s and '80s, and our construction of reservoirs stopped, and our population continued to rise, so the per capita availability started going back to where today we're about where we were in the 1950s in available water per population. 

So Texans have some serious issues. In 1997 I was a part of the Legislature that adopted the statewide water plan and empowered the Water Development Board to put together what I think was something that all Texans, regardless of your political perspective about what good comes out of Austin, can agree [was good]. The Legislature created a water planning system that was from the bottom up, when we created the 16 regional water plans. This was phenomenally important because it put the water planners in the local regions in the driver's seat to determine the needs of their specific communities and regions. Then that's compiled at the state level to where we were going through this water planning cycle and identifying the forecasted needs and trying to reach them.

Texans have some real decisions to make. New reservoirs are a part of that water planning process. It's not the only solution, but it's a big, big part of the solution. And many people from all walks of political life don't want to see new water reservoirs constructed. And I have hunted and fished and played in a lot of river bottoms, and I love it — it is an experience that every Texan and every person even from Washington, D.C., should have the opportunity to do. But we have to have new water resources or we're going to be an economy that cannot sustain our growth and our jobs that we know are very critical.

But we also need to have policies that encourage the movement of water when we have more water than we need for the planning process on the horizon but that also discourages the movement of water when it only shifts a problem from one region of the state to the other. Our friends in Oklahoma and Louisiana — we have ongoing dialogues about moving water into Texas. We have to continue that discussion, work through the legal hurdles, and it needs to be profitable for the area where that water's moved from. That is a realistic consideration that has to be factored into what we're doing.

TT: You mentioned the '50s. Did your parents or grandparents live through that?

Staples: They did. And [it was] just unprecedented. ... I've talked to producers in their 80s, from all walks of life, and they look me in the eye and say, "Staples, we don't know when it's been this bad. This dry. And this hot." And you'll remember, earlier this year we had sustained winds that were just drying out the topsoil. And so you have a combination of factors that led to the dire consequences that we're facing today.

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