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.
“It’s a long way from home,” said Licon, whose father started the family dairy in the early 1960s in El Paso. “Traveling every single day made it a lot harder for us to do.”
The ban and ensuing eradication of dairy farms — an industry that used to rake in more than $40 million a year for the region — have had a devastating effect on the community and related agriculture. Now a lawmaker wants to repeal it, but no matter what happens, a major dairy expansion is not expected to follow.
State Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, has filed House Bills 1080 and 1081, joined by companion bills in the Senate, to repeal the ban on dairy permits in the area and to form a commission to research the presence of bovine tuberculosis in Mexico, where agricultural officials had suspected 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,” said González, who showed diary heifers in local competitions while in high school. “It’s important for us to at least investigate bringing back dairy farms.”
El Paso dairies struggled throughout the 1990s to control the disease, which can be transmitted to humans and can be lethal if ignored. The Texas Animal Health Commission attempted to trace the source of the bovine tuberculosis by studying wildlife, cattle movement and dairy workers, but tests proved inconclusive. Dr. Dee Ellis, executive director of the Animal Health Commission, said what complicated the studies was that quarantined herds were somehow reinfected.
The commission classified the El Paso area as a “high risk zone” for bovine tuberculosis in 2000. And in 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stopped characterizing Texas as being bovine tuberculosis-free, an action that restricted cattle movements across state lines and increased cattle testing.
In 2003, the USDA, the state Animal Health Commission and El Paso dairy farmers agreed to an estimated $44 million deal to buy out 11 dairies in El Paso, eradicating the cattle and isolating the farmland for 20 years. In 2006, Texas regained its bovine tuberculosis-free status.
Brad Bouma, a fourth-generation dairyman, started his farm in El Paso in 1983. But he had to slaughter up to 1,000 of his cows to control the disease in his herd. “We spent 15 years [in the community] slaughtering and testing to try and eradicate the tuberculosis to no avail, so when the government came up with another option, we listened,” said Bouma, who moved from El Paso to Plainview in 2003 to rebuild his dairy business.
The buyout dealt a heavy blow to El Paso County, eliminating jobs and crop diversification for farmers who supplied dairies with cow feed, said Orlando Flores, a Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension Service agent.
“Our valley supported the dairy industry because we could grow alfalfa, corn, wheat, whatever the dairies needed, we were able to supply it,” Flores said.“We had to revert back to growing nothing but cotton.”
Overall, 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, 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.”
Opponents of González’s legislation worry that the source of bovine tuberculosis is still undetermined, and that the threat could return to Texas. “Mexico is a long way from eradicating [bovine] tuberculosis,” Bouma said.
González acknowledged that her legislation is “the first step of a long process,” and said she does not expect dairies to immediately return. “When dairies are moving from California this way, [they will] at least consider my home as a possible place to set their roots.”
For Licon, it is too late to return his dairy to El Paso, despite the long daily trek. “To restart again, it would cost too much,” he said. Licon hopes to pass his dairy business on to his own son, Angel, but adds that it will “stay in Hudspeth.”