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Texas Farm Bureau

Harvey was hard on farms, too

It wasn’t just the cities like Houston that suffered a lot of damage from Harvey.

Harvey did more than transform cityscape by turning highways into rivers; It also upended life for farmers and ranchers across dozens of counties that Gov. Greg Abbott declared disaster zones. The powerful winds and rains destroyed crops, displaced livestock and disrupted trade.

Texas typically exports nearly one-fourth of the country’s wheat and a major portion of its corn and soybeans, according to the state Department of Agriculture, but a shutdown of ports ahead of Harvey halted export.

At least 1.2 million beef cows graze in in 54 counties Abbott had added to his disaster list as of Tuesday, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. State and industry officials did not immediately have data on how many were lost, but news reports and social media have circulated images of wandering cattle and dramatic rescues of the animals from floodwaters.

[…]

Harvey also affected cropland. Texas rice producers had already harvested about 75 percent of the year’s rice crop, according to the Agriculture Department, but wind and water likely damaged storage bins, leading to more crop loses.

Harvey hit cotton farmers like Reed particularly hard, destroying their prospects of a banner year. While of region’s crops — corn, for instance, were out of the ground before the storm hit, cotton was another story.

“A lot of cotton didn’t get harvested,” said Gene Hall, a spokesman for the Texas Farm Bureau. “We know that they were racing the clock trying to beat landfall…I think anything left on the clock, you got to consider that a total loss.”

In Matagorda County, for instance, just 70 percent of cotton had been harvested, while only 35 percent was out of the ground in Wharton County, Hall said.

What’s more, high-speed winds ripped apart cotton modules — machines that pound processed cotton into rectangular blocks — leaving them strewn about fields and gin yards.

You can help farmers and ranchers affected by Harvey via the State of Texas Agriculture Relief Fund. There are a lot of small farms in the path of Harvey, and a lot of farms that supply Houston’s restaurants. One example of that is Gundermann Acres, which was completely wiped out. They farm vegetables – you’ve probably eaten some of their produce – so they can’t get crop insurance. You can help them out here if you want. As with everything else, it’s going to take all of these folks some time to recover, too.

Dan Patrick sightings

I doubt that the Chron’s calling out of Dan Patrick had anything to do with him appearing in public, in the daylight, where there might be people that don’t vote Republican, but it was good timing anyway.

“Oozing charm from every pore I oiled my way around the floor”

Now that Patrick is a heavy favorite in his first statewide race, for the powerful position of lieutenant governor, his handlers have hit upon a new strategy for the typically outspoken candidate: Keep the man corraled until after the election.

“At this time the senator does not plan to meet with editorial boards,” his communications director wrote the Chronicle last week. And in a news story, (“Where’s Patrick? Hiding in plain sight on the trail? Page A1, Sept. 12), the Chronicle’s Austin bureau detailed how the 64-year-old Republican candidate has gone MIA. He does not release a schedule of his appearances and limits meetings to sympathetic audiences.

Patrick’s strategy, as his handlers see it, is akin to the mighty Texas Aggies running out the clock against the boys from North Louisiana Barber College (go Clippers!) They refuse to acknowledge two distinct differences: Politics ain’t beanbag (as the saying goes) or football, and the Democratic candidate, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, is a worthy opponent.

Even though Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994, Van de Putte has something to say, and that makes Patrick and his handlers skittish.

“Democrats are not a dying breed in Texas,” a candidate told us a few weeks ago. “But Democratic voters are.” That means that if you’re a Republican, the strategy is: Keep your head down (and your mouth shut, in Patrick’s case) and you’ll win. The Texas GOP views the general election as a road bump, knowing that the bulk of voters continue to be older, whiter suburbanites who lean red.

Patrick’s refusal to meet with editorial boards around the state isn’t an insult to newspapers. It’s an insult to the people of Texas. They deserve to know where both candidates stand on the issues. They deserve to see both candidates in action, in whatever forum available. That’s what a campaign is all about.

Some 27 million people are proud to call themselves Texans. Patrick and every person who pays a filing fee owes them the dignity of talking about their capacity to lead – in campaign appearances before general audiences, in editorial boards, debates, town-hall meetings.

So lo and behold, he shows up for a fifteen minute press conference – not clear if any questions were allowed to be asked of him, but whatever – surrounded by his buddies in the business lobby.

The 15-minute event in a downtown Austin office building was Patrick’s first news conference since winning the runoff primary against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in late May, and the general-election frontrunner clearly was sensitive to the recent criticism over his low-profile campaign.

Patrick boasted of 1,300 individual meetings with Texans during the campaign. “Over the last several months, I’ve been the hardest working guy on the campaign trail,” he said.

The focus on business in the rare public appearance is unsurprising as it is an important constituency for Republicans that Van de Putte has made a point to court.

The Democrat released a jobs and economic development proposal early in the campaign and repeatedly has highlighted support from business owners in news releases.

Earlier this week, San Antonio construction magnate Henry Bartell Zachry Jr. and Ed Whitacre, a former CEO at AT&T and GM, hosted a fundraiser for her at a downtown San Antonio business club.

On Friday, Van de Putte was headed to an Austin fundraiser hosted by the co-founder of an advertising agency.

Patrick also has found himself disagreeing with the business community on some key issues.

He voted against final passage of the state budget last session and has been the most vocal hard-liner on the campaign trail when it comes to immigration and border security.

The Texas Association of Business supported the budget and has been pushing for a guest worker program, but still is endorsing Patrick.

Yes, and the Farm Bureau endorsed him, too. So the next time you hear either of them complain about anti-immigrant Republicans, you’ll know they don’t mean it. You cannot support comprehensive immigration reform and Dan Patrick at the same time. It’s like claiming to support peace while selling arms to all comers.

Patrick then put in an appearance at TribFest, and reminded us why he’d be so horrible if given a position of real power.

Patrick, who took the stage first with Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith, said the state should transition from depending solely on property taxes for funding public schools and instead rely more on a sales tax.

“It’s not increasing, it’s a swap,” Patrick said, when asked whether this would affect his standing within the business community.

While the Texas Legislature in 2013 restored some of the billions of dollars in public education spending it cut in 2011, Patrick said he would be apprehensive about allocating additional dollars to failed schools, adding that the state should rework the way it funds its schools.

Van de Putte said that if she were lieutenant governor, she would prioritize school funding during the budget battle that develops during the legislative session by tapping the surplus in the state’s coffers as it heads into the next session.

“I know that Texans value investment,” Van de Putte said.

Yes, the old property-taxes-for-sales-taxes swap. Patrick tried to peddle it as no big thing.

Patrick said property taxes have become excessive for too many Texans and he believes the public would support a tax swap that spreads out the burden of paying for schools and state programs.Texas schools are primarily funded with local property taxes and state revenue – including sales taxes.

“What I have always believed is we need to transition from depending (so much) on property taxes to more of a sales tax base that requires more people paying,” Patrick said at a political forum in Austin.

“This is something we need to have a serious discussion about. I am talking about bringing senators and hopefully House members together and being honest about tax policy,” he said, pointing out that many Texans cannot afford to keep paying higher and higher property taxes. School property taxes make up about 60 percent of the average property tax bill.

Texas Tribune Editor in Chief Evan Smith, who separately questioned both Sens. Patrick, R-Houston, and Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, asked Patrick about complaints that a higher sales tax would be regressive and increase the tax burden of lower income families.

“If you take an extra penny or two, would a person stop buying something because it costs $1.10 instead of $1.08?” he asked, referring to the current sales tax of 8.25 percent in most areas of the state. The tax swap should be set up so that people below the poverty level are exempted from sales taxes. “It would not be a tax on the poor. If you want to do something about a tax on the poor, let’s get rid of the lottery,” he said.

When Dan Patrick talks about this, you need to keep in mind two things:

1. Any property-tax-for-sales-tax swap will have winners and losers, and you can guess which one Patrick would be. I guarantee you, this would be a huge windfall for people like Dan Patrick.

2. If you believe that the kind of property tax cut Dan Patrick would want to propose could be fully funded by a two-cent increase in the sales tax, I’ve got a business margins tax I’d like to sell you.

So keep talking, Dan. Our best bet is that people pay attention to what you’re saying. In the meantime, the Corpus Christi Caller became the first, but surely not the last, newspaper to endorse Sen. Leticia Van de Putte.

National ag groups not happy with Republicans

It’s all about immigration reform.

Craig Regelbrugge, who co-chairs the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, says a large majority of his group’s members — which include large and small farming enterprises and growers all around the country — are Republican, and many give to the GOP. But he’s increasingly hearing from members who are so frustrated by the Congressional GOP’s failure to act on reform — which is central to maintaining a workforce in the industry — that they are considering withholding campaign donations.

“I hear from growers frequently who basically say, `I used to be a loyal check writer when the Republican Party called, but at this point, the checkbook is closed,’” Regelbrugge tells me. “I’m hearing from growers who are no longer writing checks supporting the party.”

Mike Gempler heads the Washington Growers League, which represents growers ranging from mom-and-pop outfits to enterprises spanning 10,000 acres, and he says that “well over 90 percent” of his members vote Republican, and many write checks. Some of them sit in the district of GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington State, a member of the GOP leadership.

But, he says, they are increasingly convinced the GOP is no longer representing their interests in the immigration debate, if the failure to move on legislation is any indication, and are concluding that Republicans are very close to squandering a rare opportunity to achieve reform.

“We’re seeing a lack of response to our needs and concerns from significant parts of the Republican caucus in the House,” Gempler tells me. “They either have ideological issues or they are catering to a more reactionary crowd.”

“We want to see the leadership, including Cathy, move on this,” Gempler continues. “The chances for getting immigration reform are lessening quickly. If we don’t get this done by August recess, we’re going to be in trouble as an industry.”

[…]

All this gets to a point about the immigration debate that keeps getting lost: Major Republican-aligned groups want reform — from growers out west to the business community to to evangelicals — and when Republicans refuse to act because they fear blowback from anti-reform conservatives, they are prioritizing them over other core constituencies. Now the growers are increasingly convinced the chance for reform is slipping away and they are getting cut out as a result.

It also gets at a point that I’ve made here many times, which is that while all these groups may want reform, they continue to support – or at least, not oppose – plenty of Republican officeholders that stand in their way. The Texas Association of Business and the late moneybag Bob Perry were and are classic examples of this in Texas. The Texas Farm Bureau has joined in this unhappy chorus this year, and it remains to be seen if they will be as all-talk-no-action as their peers. We’ll know by their actions in the Lite Gov race. As for the national groups, withholding financial support is something, though with the latest SCOTUS shenanigans it may not amount to much. The bottom line is that they have the power to do something about this. A few well-placed primary challenges could do a world of good, and wouldn’t even require them to support any icky Democrats. Until they actually try to use that power, I’m not going to waste any time feeling sympathy for them.

Endorsement watch: None of the above

The Texas Farm Bureau is unhappy with its choices in the Ag Commissioner runoffs.

The political arm of the Texas Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farming organization, will refrain from endorsing a candidate in the GOP runoff for agriculture commissioner after the group’s preferred candidate lost in the March 4 primary.

For the first time in its 25-year-plus history, the board of the Texas Farm Bureau Friends of Agriculture Fund voted Tuesday not to back a candidate.

“Our board and our members feel strongly that all remaining candidates in both primaries should address the serious issues concerning Texas agriculture’s uncertain future,” Kenneth Dierschke, Texas Farm Bureau and AGFUND president, said in a press release. “We will leave this decision in the hands of the voters of Texas.

I’m a little surprised they didn’t go for Tommy Merritt, who unlike Sid Miller wasn’t a complete tool while in the Legislature. I’ll be voting for Kinky Friedman in the Democratic runoff, but I can understand why the Farm Bureau is sitting this one out. As long as they do the right thing in the Lt. Governor’s race, it’s all good by me.

Texas Farm Bureau unhappy with anti-immigrant Republicans

It’s an opportunity for Democrats, assuming they actually mean what they’re saying.

When Republican agriculture commissioner candidate Eric Opiela appeared on television sets across Texas recently to declare “No amnesty under any circumstances,” he was no doubt attempting to appeal to the conservative constituency that is expected to turn out in next week’s primary election.

So are his major primary opponents, former state Reps. Sid Miller and Tommy Merritt, and Uvalde Mayor J Allen Carnes, who oppose any pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Current Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, a candidate for lieutenant governor, is also blasting one of his Republican opponents, state Sen. Dan Patrick, over reports that he hired undocumented workers and supported amnesty for one of them decades ago.

But all of the candidates also happen to disagree with one of the country’s most powerful agricultural lobbying groups, which boasts some half a million members in Texas. The American Farm Bureau Federation and its local arm, the Texas Farm Bureau, are strong supporters of a major immigration reform bill the U.S. Senate passed last year that offers a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The bill has been heavily criticized by many conservative politicians, both nationwide and in Texas, highlighting a rift between the Republican Party and the agricultural lobby that widened recently during debate over the farm bill.

“Let’s just cut to the chase on this thing: Eighty-five percent of the agricultural labor that goes on in the state of Texas … is done by either undocumented or illegally documented people,” said Steve Pringle, legislative director for the Texas Farm Bureau. “If and when that labor supply is not there, that production simply goes out of business.”

[…]

For Pringle, the Republican Party’s shift to the right in recent years means that the Texas farm lobby may be looking for friends in places that would have seemed unlikely just a few years ago. In the 2012 election cycle, the Texas Farm Bureau donated $10,000 to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“Let’s just put it this way,” Pringle said. “We are finding conservative Republicans less and less supportive of agriculture.”

Like I said, a potential opportunity for Democrats to steal a bit of support from some typically unfavorably places, and not just in the Ag Commissioner race. The TFB has endorsed Carnes, but it’s not clear they’d transfer that support to, say, Eric Opiela or Sid Miller if one of them became the nominee. We’ve heard this sort of talk before, from typically pro-Republican business groups that support immigration reform, such as the Texas Association of Business, but it generally doesn’t translate into any tangible action. TAB in particular has a history of getting good press for saying pro-immigrant things and occasionally calling out some of the worst offenders among the Republicans, but they never follow it up by actively opposing the legislators they identify as the problem, even as the rhetoric has gotten more and more strident. If the TFB wants to be seen as more than just an empty voice for immigration reform, the place they can and should start is in the Lt. Governor’s race. If they fail to support Leticia Van de Putte, especially over Dan Patrick or Todd Staples, we’ll know they didn’t intend to be taken seriously. Just walk the walk, fellas, that’s all I’m asking.

Who gets the water?

This will be worth watching.

A simple idea has guided appropriations of Texas water for decades: First come, first served.

Now, with drought conditions returning to almost the entire state, the principle is being put to the test by a fight over water in the Brazos River.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is withholding water from some, but not all, rights holders to meet the needs of the Dow Chemical Co., which operates a massive manufacturing complex where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Farmers have sued to get their water back, saying the state agency overstepped its authority by exempting cities and power producers with rights younger than theirs from the suspension order. The agency based the decision upon “public health, safety and welfare concerns.”

No one disputes the chemical maker’s rights, which date to the 1920s. The legal question is whether TCEQ may consider factors beyond seniority when deciding who gets water first in times of shortage.

“This really will be a precedent-setting case if the courts uphold TCEQ’s position,” said Ronald Kaiser, professor of water law and policy at Texas A&M University. “It is about whether we still believe in the priority system. It is elegantly simple, but its limitation is that we don’t consider the highest economic use of water.”

[…]

In the lawsuit, the Texas Farm Bureau and two growers argue that TCEQ does not have the authority to divert from the priority system during drought.

The order leaves more than 700 farmers without surface water for irrigation, while dozens of others with junior rights, including the cities of Houston and Waco and NRG Energy, will not be restricted in their use.

“It turns the priority system on its head,” said Regan Beck, assistant general counsel for public policy at the Farm Bureau.

Mark McPherson, a Dallas-based lawyer who specializes in water rights but is not involved in the lawsuit, agreed.

“When the historic state priority system is changed so materially, it makes those who planned based on the priority system look foolish, and it makes those who benefit from the change look lucky,” McPherson said. “I don’t think that’s a proper use of agency power.”

The solution, he said, is for those who need more water to pay for it. State law allows TCEQ to transfer water rights to meet urgent public health and safety needs, but doing so requires compensation, which was not offered in this case.

“The correct answer is perhaps harsh, but nonetheless necessary: Go acquire more water rights, at the market cost, and pass those costs on to the users,” McPherson said. “And if this were allowed to happen, we’d quickly feel, and finally understand, that water supply is a critical factor in economic competition.”

I’m not a lawyer and I know precious little about water rights, but what McPherson says makes sense to me. I can’t wait to see what the court says. I imagine the Lege will be interested in this decision as well, as it may force them to rewrite some existing laws, and it may give them some extra incentive to tackle that long-term water issue.

Meanwhile, in other water dispute news, the state of Texas has filed a complaint with the Supreme Court against New Mexico over water from the Rio Grande.

In its complaint, Texas says that New Mexico has dodged a 1938 agreement to deliver Texas’ share of Rio Grande river. Instead, New Mexico is illegally allowing diversions of both surface and underground water hydrologically connected to the Rio Grande downstream of Elephant Butte reservoir in New Mexico, according to the filing.

The complaint, filed after New Mexico took its own legal actions and after years of negotiations, asks the Supreme Court to command New Mexico to deliver water apportioned to Texas.

The Rio Grande is the primary, and at some places the only, source of water for much of the agricultural land within Texas. Water from the river constitutes, on average, half the annual water supply for El Paso, according to the filing.

“So long as New Mexico refuses to acknowledge its Rio Grande Compact obligations to Texas, no amount of negotiation or mediation can address Texas’ claims,” the filing said. “And so long as the matter continues unresolved by this Court, New Mexico can simply continue to divert, pump and use water in excess of its Rio Grande Compact apportionment, to the continued detriment of Texas.”

Conservation in El Paso has been emphasized for decades, said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso. “The community has rallied behind conservation as important,” he said. “But we have rights to access to water: Water in the desert is crucial.”

New Mexico Attorney General Gary King fired back Thursday in a statement that Texas’ court filing was “tantamount to extortion.”

New Mexico farmers already can draw less water from the Elephant Butte reservoir following an agreement several years ago between the two states. King said the Texas complaint, if successful, would “deplete the water in southern New Mexico in a manner that would destroy the long-term viability of water resources.”

The Trib also covered this and another dispute between Tarrant County and Oklahoma that SCOTUS has agreed to adjudicate. I figure we’re going to see a lot more of this sort of thing in the coming years.

Feral hogs: Still a problem

I’ve always been glad to live in the city because of stuff like this, but maybe it’s not enough any more.

Arlington and Dallas are among cities along the Trinity River that also have reported problems with wild hogs that weigh several hundred pounds, [Ag Commissioner Todd] Staples said.

Wildlife officials say the hogs are now starting to plague urban areas because of changing habitats and prolific reproduction. Texas has up to 2 million of the hairy beasts, about half the nation’s population, and state officials say they cause about $400 million in damage each year.

Although not all feral hogs have tusks, for years the animals have been a menace in rural areas by shredding cornfields, eating calves and damaging fruit trees – even breaking through barbed-wire fences, said Texas Farm Bureau spokesman Gene Hall. They also wreck ecosystems by wallowing in riverbeds and streams.

“They can do more damage than a bulldozer,” Hall said.

Methods to stop the problem have failed, including a pig birth-control pill studied by a veterinarian and researcher. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering allowing hunters in helicopters to shoot wild hogs at a wildlife refuge in Central Texas, saying they keep destroying the habitat.

Just curious – how effective is shooting them from helicopters, anyway? Is it really possible to bag more of them than you would traditionally? Seems to me the noise from the copters would scare off any animals in the vicinity, but what do I know? Anybody have experience with this? Of course, if that’s not effective then it’s hard to say what would be. I’m glad it’s not my job to have to figure it out.

Endorsement watch: When nothing is something

The Texas Farm Bureau endorses no one in the Governor’s race.

The Texas Farm Bureau, which has feuded with Rick Perry over toll roads and private-property rights, opted Wednesday not to endorse anybody in the governor’s race.

The decision was the first time the Farm Bureau’s political committee has not backed the Republican nominee for governor since it began making endorsements in 1990.

Spokesman Gene Hall said the bureau’s Friends of Agriculture Fund voted to stay neutral.

Democrat Bill White’s campaign hailed the decision as a victory.

“Bill White is committed to private property rights, while Perry’s spent years obsessed with the corrupt land grab of the Trans-Texas Corridor,” said spokeswoman Katy Bacon.

I figure stuff like this is the result of Perry’s “screw everybody except the base” strategy. I mean, it should be a no-brainer for him to get the Farm Bureau endorsement. Other than the occasional conservative, ag-friendly, incumbent Democrat, they endorse Republicans. Sure, they had a falling out with Perry over eminent domain in 2007 and the TTC before that, but they still have a lot in common, and there’s no reason why Perry couldn’t have found some way to win them back. You have to wonder how many people Perry can kick out of his circle before his circle becomes too small for him to win. He seems determined to find out, that’s for sure.

Rick and Bill at the Farm Bureau

The gubernatorial campaign, in a nutshell.

Gov. Rick Perry delivered a patriotic speech to the Texas Farm Bureau on Thursday, but gave short shrift to the property rights issue that caused a split between him and one of the state’s largest agricultural organizations.

Democratic challenger Bill White earlier delivered what sounded like a point-by-point legal argument for why the Farm Bureau should turn its back on Perry. Topping the list was the governor’s 2007 veto of a bill to limit land condemnations through eminent domain, a bill the Farm Bureau had lobbied to pass.

Perry’s speech gave the appearance of indifference to Farm Bureau anger, and his lack of contrition led some in the Republican-leaning audience to say they will consider voting for Democrat White this fall.

“Rick Perry gave a very patriotic speech. He didn’t address our issues, and we have issues with him,” said Mike Thompson, a Mount Pleasant poultry producer. “I’ll tell you what I like about Bill White. He shot straight.”

Perry is desperate to talk about anything but his record – hey, if you had his record, you’d be the same way – and he hopes no one will notice. He also refuses to admit the possibility that he might have done something unwise, even to an audience that would have loved to forgive him for it. White can and will speak intelligently on any subject, and if people give him a listen, they’ll come away impressed. Whether or not you think he needs to have a “big idea”, you know he’s got what it takes. The Trib has more.