By Michael Rodriguez

WESLACO — U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Ed Avalos was in town Thursday to field several concerns from Rio Grande Valley farmers and ranchers.

The event, which was organized not unlike a town hall meeting, was hosted at the Texas A&M University Kingsville Citrus Center in Weslaco by U.S. Representative Filemón Vela, D-Brownsville.

Among those who joined Undersecretary Avalos and Rep. Vela was Dr. Daniel R. Baca, a veterinary epidemiologist for the USDA and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Baca, who also works in the Cattle Fever Tick Eradication Program, helped address more than a dozen questions from farmers and ranchers hailing from multiple counties with regard to their growing concerns about cattle fever ticks, citrus greening and the Mexican Fruit Fly, among other issues currently threatening their operations.

At the onset of the meeting, however, it was Undersecretary Avalos who set the tone for the proceeding when remarking, “It is a priority for me and the USDA. We’re not going to abandon ship on this.”

The meeting then began with questions about the cattle fever tick problems currently experienced in South Texas. Cameron County rancher Danny Davis asked for long-term solutions beyond controlling the current wave of fever ticks.

“I’m right in the middle of the fever tick,” Davis said. “It has affected our operation real hard, and while knowing it can be eradicated, my concern is long-term. We’ve got nilgai that’s crossing the river and crossing the ship channels, and I know they’re in the process of regulating or controlling the nilgai, but that’s not going to stop them if we don’t stop the nilgai from going back and forth to Mexico, because we’ll have this problem again.”

The fever ticks, which can attach themselves to cattle — such as nilgai — in clusters transmits cattle fever through infected saliva and can cause anemia, seizures, aggressiveness, jaundice and even death, according to the USDA.

“Five years ago, the tick inspectors told me this was going to happen, and it’s cost me,” Davis further noted. “It’s very costly for my operation, and I think we’ve got to add some kind of long-term deal or I’m out of business. And it’s costly in other areas, because I’ve sold cattle to other places and now three other places are infested — one in Kleberg County, one in Hidalgo County and maybe more.”

Others asked for the current status on eradicating the parasites.

“About 90,000 acres that’s quarantined where we know we have cattle fever ticks, about 75 percent of that property is U.S. Fish and Wildlife and about 25 percent of that is private property, so we currently have implemented a manned system in Los Fresnos to carry out functions of the control and eradication of cattle fever ticks on property in that temporary preventative quarantined area,” Baca said. “There’s also the area around those tick-infested properties at risk of acquiring the cattle fever tick due to movement of livestock and wildlife.”

Another alternative solution was to medicate corn with ivermectin in hopes of self-medicating livestock.

“We’re currently going through the process of getting that approval from U.S. Fish and Wildlife to use that product,” Baca added. “That has been proven through the years to be effective in controlling and eradicating cattle fever ticks on white-tailed deer.”

Still, there were some in attendance who feared their livestock will be shot as a last resort. And on Friday, Davis said he received word from the Texas Animal Health Commission that his entire ranch, some 3,000 acres, came under a new quarantine shortly after the meeting. Davis called the action “retaliation” for raising questions and pointed to as much with regard to why many others didn’t speak for fear of facing similar restrictions.

When asked how much he’s lost in terms of financial expenditures as a result of the fever tick problem and quarantines, Davis said, “Probably $40,000 to $50,000.”

Others pointed to the ongoing threat of the Mexican Fruit Fly — larvae that attacks at least 60 varieties of fruit, particularly citrus and mangoes, according to the USDA — that’s rendered their products useless and consequently affected their livelihoods. Farmers from Brownsville said they’ve long taken pride in having “the best fruit in the world” but are limited by the Mexican Fruit Fly’s resurgence.

“I think it’s really important for people in positions like Secretary Avalos, who essentially oversees all USDA researching activity, to hear it straight from the people who make their living from farming and ranching that the decisions they make on issues of fever ticks, in respect to the ranchers, and citrus greening and the Mexican Fruit Fly, in respect to folks in the citrus industry, have a very real impact on their livelihoods,” Rep. Vela said. “It’s personal for me when the parents of friends of mine, whom I’ve never met but whose children I know, get up and speak about how they’ve had to stall the sale of some of their products because, in this instance, of the Mexican Fruit Fly being found in a neighborhood home across the street. So yes, it hits home.”

Undersecretary Avalos, who said his office would research the concerns brought to his attention, plans on returning with Vela at some point to present his findings.

“The comments we heard today are very important to me,” Undersecretary Avalos said. “For me to come back and respond to the questions they came up with, it’s a priority to me. I’m going to get back to them. I may not have the solutions, I may not have the answers they want, but I am going to respond to these people because it’s important to them, and that’s why I came.”

Rep. Vela added, “There were a lot of moving parts and a lot of information we gathered here today, so the most concise way to approach this is that … it’s clear to me that there needs to be a much better-organized effort on the standpoint of the involvement of federal and state agencies to communicate to the public on exactly what they’re doing to address these issues.”

Fielding concerns: USDA tackles fever tick, fruit fly concerns