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Hard times extend into school yards

Plight of West Texas agriculture reaches far beyond turnrows WALKER HEARD all about insects, weather, poor prices and the general hard times farmers are facing in his district when he met with the agents from counties in his district.

Poor crops and poor prices battered West Texas all year.

Much has been written about the plight of Texas agriculture in the turnrows, but the economic crisis facing farmers extends into the schoolyards, medical facilities and town square businesses of the West Texas rural communities, points out Walker and the county agents.

Without a viable agriculture, rural communities face extinction, according to Walker. That is nothing new, but it is quickly reaching a crisis stage as Texas urban centers continue to grow and erode the political influence of rural Texas.

Texas' population is growing of an annual rate of about 20 percent, said Walker. However, in the counties Walker represents the growth rate is far less than that.

The result will be that during the next round of re-districting in 2001, rural Texas will fall even farther behind politically.

Walker said only 25 members of the 150-member state House of Representatives now live west of Interstate 35, the main highway that runs basically from the Red River to the Gulf Coast. Along the route are the cities of Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, with Houston to the east. Two-thirds of the state's landmass lies west of I-35 but it is mostly rural and sparsely populated.

"Harris County alone has 25 representatives," he said. "And many of these people think bread comes off supermarket shelves. Many school children in Texas do not know where milk comes from."

There are only 10 state representatives representing West Texas and the Texas Panhandle, said Walker. When re-districting is completed, Walker said there likely would be only eight.

Walker now represents about 115,000 people in his seven-county district. When redistricting is completed, he estimates his district will encompass a much wider geographic area to account for the 136,000 people he will be required to represent under re-districting.

This will further erode the already limited influence of rural Texas and make it harder to get funds and political recognition for the crisis facing rural West Texas and the Texas Panhandle.

The key to maintaining the economies of the counties he represents will be to somehow find ways to sustainable agriculture.

Texas A&M Extension agents told Walker of the efforts they are making to do that, including searches for alternative crops. Peanut acreage, the agents report, has increased significantly in recent years. For example in Yoakum County, peanut acreage has tripled in the past three years, according to Extension agent Tadd Knight.

However, peanuts will not replace the vast acreage of cotton. Guar is another crop being tired, but it also is in limited demand. And, there are pockets of vegetable crops.

Many growers are working hard to sustain their livelihoods, according to the county agents, who report sharp increases in use of irrigation conservation practices and the use of Integrated Pest Management.

"However, growers have no control over the weather and prices" and without rain and profitable commodity prices, producers are not able to do much to help themselves, said veteran Dawson County extension agent John Farris.

The issue of insurance fraud and abuse is one area where the government could help, according to Martin County extension agent Lee Howard.

"There are a lot of growers who are trying to make a crop," said Howard, but their efforts are stymied by those who plant only hoping to collect disaster insurance. This increases acreage and often depresses prices. Insurance reform would benefit the legitimate farmers, said Howard.

Farmers in Yoakum County have formed a marketing club to improve their chances for profit, according to Knight. There also have been vegetable conferences to identify alternatives to traditional crops.

At the same time, extension agents are working with community on health and welfare issues as well as a "character counts" with communities and schools.

"My family has been involved in what most people know as 4-H for 25 years. I know what the Extension Service contributes to rural Texas," Walker said.

He pledged to do all he can do politically to preserve rural West Texas.

"What's good for West Texas is what's important to me," said Walker, who ran unopposed for re-election this year.

"Supporting school vouchers is a big Republican issue right now, but I oppose a voucher system because of what it will do to our rural schools," he said.

Water quantity and quality is a never-ending issue in West Texas, and Walker said urban interests want to take water from the Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies most of the Texas Panhandle and ship it to places like Houston at a cost of $1,400 an acre food.

He pledged to challenge such schemes because if they were successful, they'd further erode rural West Texas. He prefers instead to promote desalinization, a process he said can turn sea water into drinking water for as little as $1,000 per acre foot. This would meet the need of cities near the Texas coastline.

While offering support and encouraging for Extension agents, he said preserving the rural lifestyle of West Texas would continue to be a political and financial struggle.

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