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- VIEWPOINT -

Lessons Learned from History
 

By Jay Yates
Shallowater, Texas
 

• Third generation southwestern New Mexico farmer.
• B.S., Tarleton State University.
• M.S., Texas A&M University.
• Extension Program Specialist III – Risk Management, Texas AgriLife Extension Service,
  Lubbock, Texas.
• Former Asst. Extension Specialist, Minnesota Extension Service, St. Paul, Minn.
• Currently analyzes financial performance & associated risk of crop/livestock producers.


One of my current activities with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service in the southern High Plains region is to produce a weekly radio program for a local ag talk show regarding the cotton market and factors affecting the profitability of cotton farming in the area. I can never do the program without talking about the impact the energy markets have on both the production costs and marketing of the local cotton crop.

Another major issue in this corner of the world is water. It always makes me think of the stories my grandfather told me as a child about the early days in New Mexico when his father moved the family from Illinois.

Settlers were drawn to southwestern New Mexico in the territorial days by the promise of free land, abundant water, rich soils, high yielding crops and a major transportation hub with the junction of the Southern Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railways. The dry climate was good for the lungs, and nearby mineral springs healed aching bodies. Life was good.

This quote from the ‘History of New Mexico – Its Resources and People, Volume II,’ 1907, page 845, says it best:

“Luna County is pre-eminently cattle country, although with the development of irrigation systems founded upon the waters of the Rio Mimbres, cereals, fruits and vegetables will undoubtedly become important sources of wealth.”

I’m sure by now you are wondering what this history lesson has to do with the profitability and sustainability of cotton in the southern High Plains of Texas. Many of the forces affecting our agricultural system today have a striking resemblance to those of a century ago.

First was what started the boom in agriculture during that period. The $2.08 per-gallon tax on alcohol for use as fuel was removed in 1906 much to the displeasure of “Big Oil” interests back east. USDA began promoting the use of on-farm stills to provide all the energy needs of the farm. A great deal of land was coming into production in the West, and alcohol fuels were a way to handle the surplus.

The statements made during the energy crisis of the early 20th century sound eerily familiar as can be seen in this excerpt regarding the 1920 U.S.G.S oil reserve report from Harold Hibbert, ‘The Role of the Chemist in Relation to the Future Supply of Liquid Fuel,’ Journal of Industrial and Chemical Engineering 13, No. 9 (Sept. 1921) p. 841:

“Does the average citizen understand what this means? In 10 to 20 years this country will be dependent entirely upon outside sources for a supply of liquid fuels...paying out vast sums yearly in order to obtain supplies of crude oil from Mexico, Russia and Persia. But chemists might solve the problem by converting cellulose waste from farm crops, timber operations and seaweed into ethyl alcohol.”

The second factor, which led to the rise and fall of agricultural prosperity in Luna County, was the depletion of the precious water supply beyond the technology of the day to extract it. According to the Census of 1920, the average lift had increased to 57 feet, and the average capacity had dropped to 610 gallons per minute.

Third was a change in government policy. New Mexico was one of the last states to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment in January of 1919, which made Prohibition the law of the land one year later. On-farm stills were now illegal. This was the final blow to the ethanol business.

As we see our world changing around us at a staggering pace, we need to keep perspective on the important things in life. The structure of farming may be dramatically altered from one time period to the next, so we need to always be willing to adapt to the new world, even if it doesn’t fit our idea of what agriculture should look like.

Contact Jay Yates in Lubbock, Texas, at (806) 746-6101 or jayates@ag.tamu.edu.


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