Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Be Thankful

Any way you slice it, 2009 has had more than the usual share of obstacles and high hurdles: exceptional drought in most parts of Texas followed by flooding in the remaining areas, high unemployment, high foreclosures and bank failures, mounting national debt that threatens our worldwide competitive ability, historically low overall economic activity for our state and nation, the tragic loss of life at Ft. Hood and family members with serious health problems.

It has been such a tough year in so many ways that this Thanksgiving, do you know what I am going to do? Well, I am going to be thankful.

I am thankful for God’s blessings. I am thankful for my family. I am thankful to be a Texan. I am thankful our team at the Texas Department of Agriculture has an opportunity to partner with so many terrific individuals and organizations throughout our great state. I am thankful that even with all that I don’t like and want to change, I live in a country where each individual has opportunity and freedom. I am thankful the Aggies have the home field advantage for this year’s football game with the Longhorns and am thankful my Longhorn friends don’t rub in the last few years (too much). I am thankful I caught an old cow we’ve been trying to pen for over two years! Finally, I am thankful for each new day we are given to make it better than yesterday.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

Monday, November 23, 2009

No Texan deserves to be hungry

Last week I spoke to more than 250 representatives at Texas at the Table: Baylor University Hunger Summit. The forum was created to share solutions to end food insecurity in Texas by 2015. Unfortunately, right now we lead the nation in children who are food insecure.

USDA recently released a study showing that food insecurity hit a record high in 2008. The number of food-insecure U.S. households was up 31 percent in 2008. With so many food-insecure homes in the U.S. and Texas, I am concerned that the Obama administration and some in Congress are contemplating policies that will make food more expensive. For example Washington’s recent ideas to implement a cap-and-trade system and to require additional EPA permits for pesticide applicators and feedlots will undoubtedly drive food costs higher, widening the gap between those who can afford food and those who can’t.

To truly end hunger in Texas, we must work together and create programs where people who don’t make enough to support their families can earn the skills they need to be able to get better paying jobs. Americans enjoy the safest, most affordable food supply in the world. Texas is a prosperous state with tremendous resources. We must match those resources with those who are truly in need.

No Texan should ever go hungry. We can and must do better. You can make a difference by volunteering at your local food bank, offering to help with a home-delivered meals agency or by getting your mayor to accept the Texas Department of Agriculture Mayors Challenge. Click here to find out more.

Commentary: Sharing water and responsibilities

A commentary I wrote on Texas' serious water issues appears in today's Austin American-Statesman. It is critical that we strike the right balance when dealing with the distribution of water. Please take some time to read the commentary and pass it along to others. Thank you.

Staples: Sharing water and responsibilities
Austin American Statesman
Monday, November 23, 2009

When I first began serving as a state representative, I remember House Speaker Pete Laney beginning his speech on opening day by saying, "One hundred years ago, Texans were carrying guns and fighting over water. Not much has changed."

I hope Texans never give up their fighting spirit, but competing over water is a battle we must move beyond. The drought of 2008-2009 has brought home some tough realities for all Texans and an even tougher debate about how to allocate available water supplies.

I appreciate the Lower Colorado River Authority's recent decision to honor an existing contract with Texas rice farmers that will supply water for their first crop. At issue is the availability of water for a much-needed second crop to help increase an already limited supply of rice. Much of the rice Texans find in grocery stores is grown right here in the Lone Star State. In fact, a recent report shows the rice grown in the three counties that receive LCRA water has an annual economic impact of $355 million for the Texas economy and is responsible for 2,590 jobs.

All water managers, suppliers, planners and strategists must be careful to realize this is not a clear-cut fight between opposing parties in need of water. We cannot simply grapple over what we have. Each has a responsibility to extend the reach of existing resources and develop new and reliable sources of water.

Yes, municipalities need water. Yes, industry needs water. Yes, our ecological systems and residents need water. But we also need our farmers to have water. If affordable options for water are not provided to our farmers, it is likely Texans will no longer have affordable and safe food supplies.

As we contemplate water strategies, water needs and water allocations, it is important to keep in mind the lack of water and who gets cut off is not just a farmer's problem — it's a Texas problem.

Conservation practices, more drought-tolerant seed varieties, technology and more efficient watering systems are all a part of a farmer's proper water management. Farmers have made tremendous strides in the last few years alone, and more steps are being taken to preserve water resources.

Whether we stop and think about it daily or not, the reality is water starts and ends with the land and the landowner. We must approach this water debate not from a winner's and loser's perspective, but from a Texas perspective. Otherwise, we focus too much on the problems and not enough on the solutions.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Texas seed production

We Texans pride ourselves on being the biggest and the best at what we do. We are still the No.1 producing state when it comes to cattle, cotton, sheep and goats, wool, mohair, horses and hay. Pretty big list, huh?

I spoke to the Texas State Seed Trade Association the other day. In doing some background work, I read an article published by the Texas Agricultural Extension Service that said “Texas produces approximately 90 percent of the hybrid sorghum seed planted in the United States and 45 percent of the world supply.”

Forty-five percent of the WORLD supply! It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.

We have a great team that works on seed certification here at the Texas Department of Agriculture. The team should feel good knowing their efforts are having a worldwide impact. Our seed growers invest heavily and we are thankful for their leadership here in Texas, throughout the United States and around the globe.

The next time you hear everything is bigger in Texas, remember it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true!

Urban students take an interest in agriculture

Agriculture remains a big portion of our state’s economy, accounting for almost 9.5 percent of Texas’ Gross State Product - the sum of all value added by industries within the state. Expanded science and technology have been tremendous catalysts for increasing the importance of agriculture.

As our state’s population continues to expand, particularly in the urban areas, some may mistakenly think interest in agriculture’s importance and the need for agriculture education have diminished. Not so, according to a recent article in the Dallas Morning News.

“Our program is probably going stronger in the urban areas than it is in the rural areas,” said Gerald Young, executive director of the Vocational Agriculture Teachers Association of Texas.

To read the entire article, click here.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Texan worth talking about

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Otis Fuller while visiting the town of Beeville. As you can tell from the article below, which is posted online at, Fuller was the mastermind behind an invention that has met the needs of many domestic and international farmers and consumers. In fact, it is estimated that half the world’s vegetables are planted using Fuller’s original design.

In today’s fast-paced society, this amazing Texan who is helping feed people all over the world just isn’t receiving the recognition he deserves.

Thank you, Otis Fuller, for making the world a better place.

Quit complaining with your mouth full

by Jeff Latcham

When Otis Fuller’s friends think of him, it’s likely his wicked sense of humor that stands out about the avid sportsman.

But as an article in the Oct. 24 Bee-Picayune illustrated, his legacy will be more about feeding the world than playing practical jokes. It was some 18 years ago that a Valley onion grower asked Fuller if he could develop a planter to produce four seed rows to a bed.

Fuller came up with a design and built a prototype with his crew here in his Beeville tractor shop. He recalls making 13 trips down to the Valley to tweak his creation. The result was so successful, more orders came pouring in and Fuller contacted Monoseum about producing his planter design. Two decades later, an estimated half of the world’s vegetables are planted with Fuller’s design. Think about that.

Now capitalism is under fire in America and drawing plenty of wrath, particularly from politicians who ultimately are making a push for socialism. It is fashionable among liberals to proclaim capitalism dead after the mutant investment banks of Wall Street spun Congress’ own subprime loan creation into an economic meltdown. Yet here in Beeville, we have an excellent example of how capitalism spurs mankind’s best creative juices.

This planter that feeds half the world wasn’t invented behind the Iron Curtain in the old U.S.S.R. or the Bamboo Curtain in the People’s Republic of China; yet in Russia, it’s now used to plant cabbage and in China to plant carrots. It was developed by a man trying to make a sale to a customer and, in the process, make a profit. Sorry if that offends the idealist, but it goes directly to human nature and there’s really nothing wrong with that.

We all benefit because Otis Fuller benefited. So the next time you enjoy a salad, or a side of vegetables, there’s a pretty good chance they began with the fertile mind of Otis Fuller fueled by good ol’ American capitalism.

Honoring our nation's military

As I watched various news stories of Veterans Day celebrations across our state and nation, I was inspired by the level of patriotism alive and well in the United States of America. Thanks to the sacrifices and service of our veterans, we enjoy the daily privileges of life and liberty.

Our armed forces are all volunteers. They serve with a sense of dedication and duty that has been handed down since 1776.

It should go without saying that every day is a good day to thank a veteran. Please join me in continuing this day of celebration beyond November 11 each year.

Monday, November 9, 2009

What do You Bring?

The excitement was in the air at Francisco F. “Pancho” Medrano Middle School in Dallas today as TDA launched the ‘Texans Bring It!” campaign. The campaign is designed to build on the Three E’s of Healthy Living -- Education, Exercise and Eating Right. By asking students, “what do you bring?” to help live a healthier lifestyle, we are encouraging them to take an active role in staying fit and eating right.

Our schools are doing a great job of providing healthy options for students, but we must move beyond the lunchroom and into the classrooms and living rooms across Texas if we’re going to win the war on obesity. In the last two decades, the obesity rates have doubled across America. These statistics are alarming and we must partner together to stop this trend.

By teaching our children the 3E’s we can help them build a path to a healthy lifestyle that they can follow through adulthood. Check out for more information on this exciting campaign. I want to thank our partners, including USDA and school districts across Texas as we move forward and help “Texans Bring It!”

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Texas Counties Plagued by Drought Eligible for Emergency Loans

On Tuesday, Secretary Vilsack released the final results of a March 6, 2009 request from Governor Perry to designate all 254 Texas counties as primary disaster counties on account of the record-setting drought that has plagued the Lone Star State.

After more than seven months of collecting moisture data and crop losses, USDA announced that 223 Texas counties are eligible for assistance from the Farm Service Agency. That means producers in these counties may now apply for emergency loans and the Supplemental Revenue Insurance (SURE) Program created in the 2008 Farm Bill.

Emergency loans can be used for costs associated with operating expenses or replacement of damaged property. The SURE Program provides disaster payments to producers in disaster-designated counties with crops covered by crop insurance or the Non-Insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) coverage. If you are a producer in one of these counties, I encourage you to contact your local FSA office to take advantage of these vital programs.

To see a list of the designated counties, click here.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Taiwan expands access to U.S. beef imports

More good news for Texas ranchers as USDA and the offices of the U.S. Trade Representative announced yesterday that Taiwan has expanded the type of beef cuts it will now import from the United States. I’ve always said our trade policies must be science-based and this is a step in the right direction, especially coming off the heels of Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin’s effort last week to try to convince the Taiwanese government to reconsider its decision to expand access to U.S. beef imports.

Contrary to what Mayor Lung-bin and a consumer group in Taiwan think, the U.S. does not want to dump its trash in Taiwan. The beef products we will offer Taiwan are the same ones that are offered and demanded by U.S. consumers.

The Taiwanese government deserves a sincere “thank you” for recognizing that trade decisions should be based not only on science, but also on demand. The promising demand in Taiwan will result in increased prices for U.S. cattle producers who, along with other agriculture producers, have been suffering extensively this past year.

To read USDA’s press release on this announcement, click here.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Nation Catching on that Texas is the Best Retirement Location

The rest of the nation is learning that Texas is the best retirement location. Our favorable tax structure, exceptionable health care facilities, low housing costs and overall low cost of living, as well as wonderful weather create, the perfect setting to enjoy active retirement and golden years. The Chicago Tribune and other publications across the country recently printed an article how Texas is the "new Florida" when it comes to retiring. After reading the article check out for information on GO TEXAN Certified Retirement Communities.

Texas, the new Florida, lures seniors with sun, low cost living

Don Lee, October 30, 2009
Washington Bureau for Tribune Interactive, Copyright © 2009

After trying out Atlanta, Miami and Pasadena, Calif., Lilian Junco decided this was the place to retire. Being near her son was the first attraction, but soon she was drawn in by the same combination of features that has lured tens of thousands of others from out of state -- Gulf Coast living, plus super-low costs.

With some of the country's cheapest prices for housing, gas and food, no state income tax and one of the most resilient economies in the nation, Galveston and other parts of the Lone Star state are emerging as the new Florida.

This week, when Florida demographers announce new population figures, they are expected to reveal a decline of 57,000 over the 12 months ended in April -- the first annual drop since the 1940s. Much of the loss has come in parts of southern Florida that long attracted retirees.

Meantime, other Sun Belt states such as Nevada and Arizona have been hit hard by the recession, and expensive California has long seen more residents leave than move in from other states.

But Texas, which has weathered the current recession better than most parts of the country, is almost booming--in part because an earlier oil industry crash had left the state's banks too shaken to go on the home mortgage binge that crippled so many other states when the market collapsed. Texas's population, the nation's second largest at about 25 million, is expected to be boosted this year by net inflows of at least 150,000 people from other states, says Karl Eschbach, the state demographer. Seniors are a growing part of that trend, pushed by aggressive campaigns from state officials and developers.

"It's an easy sell," claims Texas Agricultural Commissioner Todd Staples, who's trying to recruit out-of-state seniors by establishing dozens of high-quality "certified" retirement communities. "All we need to do is get retirees to have a good look at Texas."

They'll see big drawbacks along with the advantages. Poverty, highway gridlock, crime and humidity can be stifling in some parts. And places along the Gulf Coast are notoriously susceptible to ferocious weather, such as Hurricane Ike that slammed the Galveston area last year. Ike flooded downtown and sent waves crashing over a 17-foot-tall seawall built after the devastating Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which is still considered the worst natural disaster in American history.

None of that fazed Junco. Having grown up in Cuba, she didn't fear tropical storms. Florida isn't any better, she says, nor is California with its earthquakes. She remembers the panic when her Pasadena condo rattled a few years ago. "The whole bed was shaking," she says.

Moving to Galveston two years ago, Junco paid $130,000 for a one-bedroom condo with a view of the Gulf. A cap on property taxes for seniors keeps her payments low, leaving a little more money for the 70-year-old widow to travel and frequent the restaurants and shops in this touristy island.

For most of her adult life, Junco lived in Long Island and worked as a computer technician in Manhattan. She says retiring to Hawaii was too expensive. Her second choice was here. "Life is more quiet, it's more simple," she says, sipping a chocolate martini with friends at a café on a balmy Thursday evening.

For health care, she goes to the University of Texas Medical Branch here, or drives an hour west to Houston, which has world-class medical facilities. The downside is that it's not easy for seniors to get from place to place if they don't drive: big Texas cities have poor public transportation, says demographer Eschbach. "It's really hard to get around," he says, "and we have relatively little social services."

Undeterred, retirees head for places like the Rio Grande Valley, in the southernmost tip of the state abutting Mexico. Seniors from the Midwest and other northern states have long flocked here for the winter. Locals call them winter Texans.

Doug and Cheryl Lundy used to keep two homes -- their primary one in Avis, Pa., and the other in a mobile home park outside Brownsville, Texas. They were typical snowbirds, arriving in January. Come April, they'd head up to the Jersey Shore in April. But starting this year the couple decided to stay put.

Cheryl Lundy loves the hot weather -- and the living costs. She says butter costs her $1.77 a pound now, not $2.29 in her old market in Pennsylvania. "It's not just the butter," she says. "It's everything in the store."

Government reports confirm food prices are cheaper in America's breadbasket states. And for seniors on social security and other retirement income, their checks don't change from place to place.

Annual cost of living adjustments are the same nationwide, so their income may actually go farther where prices are lower.

Then there's the Mexico price. Every couple of months, retirees Thomas and Shirley Jones, transplants from Indiana, cross the bridge nearby McClellan into Nuevo Progresso, where he buys medicine for his emphysema at half price. Last year Shirley Jones got a full plate of upper dentures for $325, a fraction of what it costs in the states.

The Joneses used to be Floridians, but "Florida got so high on everything," she says. "We couldn't afford it."

Stanley Smith, the University of Florida demographer who produces official population reports for the state, says the latest recession will make Florida's cost of living more competitive. Home prices have fallen by as much as 60% in parts of the state. What's not yet clear is how Texas will fare with Baby Boomers, whose retirement path remains undefined, experts say.

The oldest of that generation is 63 this year. The recession and loss of wealth may hold back their migration, and many Boomers may look to settle in places where they can find part-time work.

That could be a big plus for Texas. It's expected to outstrip the nation in job growth in the next few years. Already four of the nation's top 10 fastest aging metro areas over the last decade have been in Texas, says the Brookings Institution.

"I think Texas has been attracting many seniors in large numbers and has many amenities along with low living costs which lure them," says William Frey, a Brookings demographer.

California is a primary target for Lone Star boosters. Last year more than 82,000 people from California moved to Texas, while some 32,000 from Texas went to the Golden State, according to data from the Internal Revenue Service.

Charles and Joan Baker will be adding to that trend this year. Even before selling their Rancho Santa Fe townhome, now on the market for $829,000, the California couple closed on a ranch-style house in the Sun City retirement community north of Austin.

Joan Baker, who is in her 60s, wouldn't say how much they paid for the new place, which is slightly larger than their property in San Diego County. But a Sun City spokesperson says the average home in the community of rolling hills is currently running about $218,000.

"I'm not saying it's easy to leave," says Joan Baker, a retired schoolteacher. "The whole San Diego area is lovely. To go north and south, east or west, and be able to see the water, it's pretty unique.

"But other things are beginning to outweigh it," she says, complaining about overcrowding and the state's budget mess. She says her husband is semi-retired and will continue his consulting work -- in Texas.

"It's just real convenient living," she says. "The terrain's a little higher so you get a breeze. There are lots of oak trees. You've got three golf courses that are drop-dead gorgeous…And in Texas, you don't have income tax."