When we traveled to the Rio Grande Valley for our South Texas Ag Tour during the spring 2022 semester, it was a life-changing, transformative experience. Throughout the week, we were blessed with the opportunity to learn about unique agricultural systems and issues affecting the agricultural presence of the region. Although I have briefly traveled to the RioGrande Valley before, I have gained new perspectives because of the unique cultural influence, geographical features, and historical significance. Since I have enrolled in the MILE Program, the South Texas Ag Tour has been the highlight of my experience thus far. I will apply the knowledge I have gained through our time in the Rio Grande Valley to my personal and professional development.
As we traveled to various communities, I was surprised to see and learn about quite a few things. First, I had little knowledge of the produce industry and the impact it has on our local communities before the tour. Now, I have a deeper appreciation for those who produce, harvest, package, and deliver fresh produce. Specifically, the H-2A temporary agricultural workers. I also did not realize how much we depend upon Mexican produce imports, too. At one point, an individual had mentioned that 60% of Texas’ fresh produce came from Mexico during the statewide COVID-19 lockdown. Therefore, I was surprised to learn about the procedures of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to protect American agriculture from plant pests and foreign animal diseases. Additionally, we learned that most of the shrimp we consume in the United States is farmed shrimp from foreign countries, such as China and Thailand. I was surprised to learn that about 1% of overseas cargo is inspected because of the surplus amount of shipments. To see the facilities of the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Mill, was quite the experience. It is filled with intricate machinery to produce raw sugar and molasses from sugarcane crops from the early 126 growers of the member-owned cooperative. Lastly, I realized I often do not know the origin of the food that I consume on a day-to-day basis, and I do not take advantage of the fresh produce on sale at stores that is diligently prepared for me.
After meeting with producers, industry representatives, and officials in the Rio GrandeValley, we received information about current agricultural issues in the region. In terms of the most pressing issues, the shortage of water and labor is critical right now. The Rio Grande Valley is described by some as an arid or semiarid region. For an area with rich farmland, that poses an issue for farmers and ranchers because there is minimal rainfall. For those growing fruits and vegetables and raising livestock, the primary source of water is groundwater reservoirs, which are being threatened by drought, climate change, and rapid population growth. On another note, labor is hard to find in the Rio Grande Valley for farmers and ranchers. Mike Helle, the owner of Green Gold Farms, expressed that he hires H-2A temporary agricultural workers to harvest his crops because he has had a difficult time finding employees in the United States. Without consistent and quality domestic labor, farmers, and ranchers lose a significant amount of money without experienced hands to assist in the production of fresh produce. To combat these issues, I can continue to recruit students through AgriTechsans and President’s Select to pursue an agricultural degree and career and educate my peers about the agricultural industry through social interactions and platforms. Because I plan on potentially working in academia for my future career right now, I want to educate others about the issues affecting the agricultural industry and how everyone can play a role in this vital industry.
From what I saw and experienced on the South Texas Ag Tour in the Rio Grande Valley, I am motivated more than ever to be as intentional as possible during my time in the MILE Program. Because we only have three semesters, I want to make the most of my time in the program and truly take advantage of all the available opportunities. We are blessed to be able to participate in such unique experiential learning opportunities. I want to be diligent with my leadership development and knowledge of American agriculture. As we prepare for the next two semesters of the MILE Program, I want to ask more questions, network with industry professionals, and inform others about unique aspects of agriculture.
During our time in the Rio Grande Valley, I did a lot of self-reflection because I was undergoing new experiences, and I am confident that I left there a more aware, informed person. Although I do not know for sure what my future career will be, I want the opportunity to positively impact others. Every individual we met during our experience is devoted to serving others. It is admirable that others sacrifice everything to provide for agriculture. Although it is not an easy lifestyle, it is worth it because if they do not, then who will feed and fuel the world. Coming from a non-production agricultural background, I have gained a deeper appreciation for those that are involved in the industry. I plan to utilize this newfound knowledge to better advocate for an industry that is vital to every community across the state of Texas. Local agriculture is the foundation for our industry, and I am blessed to have experienced a part of it within the Rio Grande Valley because of the MILE Program.
When speaking to my friends, family, and colleagues about immigration and border crises, I would do my best to communicate that the issue is complicated. Although we want to ensure nothing harmful, or illegal comes into the United States, it is difficult for those, specifically produce truckers, traveling through the ports to get clearance for their shipment in an efficient manner when each shipment is inspected. After speaking to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, it is common for us to assume what is happening versus what is actually happening. With that said, I would communicate that the U.S. Customs and Border Protections does their best to protect our borders through a protocol and is constantly working to strengthen their procedures.
Blake Mills is an agricultural leadership major from Center Point, Texas, and a member of the MILE Program’s third cohort.