U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced $5.3 million in federal grants for programs that will help farmers and ranchers find new ways to adapt to severe drought and other extreme climate changes.
Drought is causing problems for water users throughout Texas, the El Paso region and farmers in Mexico.
"The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working diligently to help American farmers and ranchers rebound from last year's drought and prepare for future times of climatic extremes," Vilsack said in a telephone interview.
"The grants are an excellent way to invest in new technology and approaches that will help our farmers, ranchers and rural communities be more resilient in the future. Most of the projects are affiliated
with universities, and are helping to determine cutting-edge practices."
Vilsack said last year's drought was the worst since the 1950s, and had serious impacts on farmers and ranchers across the country. With another possible drought this year, he said the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service is doing its part to help.
Texas A&M's AgriLife, which operates in El Paso and in other Texas communities, is one of the USDA's Conservation Innovation Grant recipients.
USDA awarded AgriLife $233,000 to develop guidelines for managing irrigation under drought conditions and computer programs for linking weather stations with irrigation scheduling.
USDA also awarded $640,000 to the Intertribal Buffalo Council, which represents 57
Native American tribes in 19 states, including New Mexico, to evaluate how traditional and historical practices helped tribes deal with drought, develop a best-practices database, and use the subsequent information for training and demonstration projects.
Recipients are required to match 50 percent of the total cost of their project programs with non-federal resources.
Vilsack said the grant projects will address drought-related issues, including grazing management, warm-season forage systems, irrigation strategies and innovative cropping systems.
Projects will evaluate innovative, field-based conservation technologies and approaches leading to improvements, such as enhancing the soil's ability to hold water, and also will examine best irrigation water practices and the most efficient drought-tolerant grazing systems.
The ongoing drought is expected to hurt the El Paso region's agricultural economy, but to what extent depends on how much longer the dry conditions continue.
"In a good year, agriculture pumps about $14 billion into our economy," said Jesus "Chuy" Reyes, general manager of the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1, which serves numerous small and large irrigation tract customers. "Among our most important crops are pecans, which are grown on about 18,000 acres of land, and pima cotton, which are grown on about 30,000 acres. Other important crops in our area are alfalfa, wheat and onions."
"Currently, we proposed giving our farmers an allocation of 6-inches per acre foot of water on June 1," Reyes said. "Last year, we provided an allocation of one-foot per acre feet of water in April. Normally, the irrigation district allocates 4-feet per acre feet of water, and releases it to irrigators in March."
An acre foot of water is 325,839 gallons.
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