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Featured: Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, on Tuesday, July 5, 2016 at the Medical Education Building in Edinburg, which is a major component of the School of Medicine for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Canales was a cosponsor in 2013 of Senate Bill 24, authored by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and sponsored by Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, which created a full-fledged medical school for deep South Texas.

Photograph By ALEX RÍOS

Under a measure being proposed by the Texas Department of Agriculture, which is being opposed by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, small business citrus and rose nurseries throughout Texas would pay dramatically higher fees to the state for exporting their products to the rest of the nation. Canales is the only Valley lawmaker among the 28 state legislators calling on TDA Commissioner Sid Miller, a Republican, to eliminate a proposed fee increase by the state agency for the issuance of phytosanitary certificates, which helps guarantee that plants and plant products exported by Texans are pest-free. The proposed fee increase would especially hurt small business owners, the House District 40 lawmaker noted.

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Increased fee planned by Texas Department of Agriculture would hurt small business exporters of citrus and rose products, says Rep. Canales

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Legislativemedia@aol.com

Under a measure being proposed by the Texas Department of Agriculture, which is being opposed by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, small business citrus and rose nurseries throughout Texas would pay dramatically higher fees to the state for exporting their products to the rest of the nation.

Canales is the only Valley lawmaker among the 28 state legislators calling on TDA Commissioner Sid Miller, a Republican, to eliminate a proposed fee increase by the state agency for the issuance of phytosanitary certificates, which helps guarantee that plants and plant products exported by Texans are pest-free.

The legislators, which include 25 state representatives and three state senators, do not want Miller to implement the proposed across-the-board fee increase and instead come up with an alternative fee structure that would not punish growers for exporting small quantities of goods over larger quantities.

In response to the legislative letter, sent to Miller on Friday, July 29, 2016, the agriculture commissioner said he would delay taking any action on his plan to raise the fee, but he did not say for how long. Instead, Miller asked that the Texas Legislature, when in returns to work for its five month regular session in January 2017, “give me and this agency the budgetary tools to keep fees as low as possible.”

Canales said he works with all state agencies to help them provide essential public services, but noted that Miller did not provide a documented cost estimate for TDA to keep the fees for phytosanitary certificates from rising.

“This proposed fee increase by Commissioner Miller would especially hurt small business owners, and doing so, negatively affect economic growth and cost jobs,” said Canales. “The Texas Department of Agriculture has a budget of more than $1 billion, with much of that amount from the federal government going for adult and children nutrition programs, which I support.

The House District 40 Democrat said even after accounting for an estimated $981 million in federal funds for nutrition programs, “that still leaves more than $100 million in the TDA budget for its other services. But Commissioner Miller has not given us an estimate on how much is needed to keep the fees from increasing for small businesses who export citrus and roses to the rest of the U.S. He knows full well that the the Texas Legislature is not going to operate in the dark when it comes to allocating taxpayer funds for state agencies.”

From 2001 to 2013, Miller served in the Texas House of Representatives as a Republican for District 59 in Central Texas.

The Texas Legislature established the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) in 1907. The agency’s key objectives are to promote production agriculture, consumer protection, economic development and healthy living. The agriculture commissioner oversees the agency and is elected every four years. The current commissioner, Miller, was elected in 2014.

“We express strong opposition to TDA’s proposed rule changes regarding Phytosanitary Inspection and Testing Fees and believe that these fees will have a negative impact on many businesses in Texas,” Canales said in the joint letter from state leaders to Miller sent on Friday, July 22, 2016. “The proposed new fee structure will dramatically increase fees for small businesses who ship small quantities of goods out of state.”

Protection for Texas agriculture is ensured through phytosanitary inspections of plant products grown in nurseries, fields or greenhouses, including their premises, growing media, containers or packaging, according to TDA. Pest-free products are issued a phytosanitary certificate or permit for shipment to pest-free areas, if requested by a grower and/or shipper. Growing season inspections are conducted to determine freedom from pests of field crops and vegetable plants.

As a prerequisite for phytosanitary certification, samples are collected and sent for diagnosis to determine the pest species present, TDA noted.

From an internal memo provided by Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, who organized the opposition, Canales provided additional insight on how small businesses in the rose and citrus industries would be hurt.

“Right now, when a grower ships out 10 different orders for rose bushes, they pay TDA $30 to get a certificate that says the plants are free of harmful pests,” explained Schaefer. “Under the new rule, growers would likely have to pay a fee for each order shipped out of state, no matter how big or small the order is. If you’re buying one rose bush or citrus tree from a Texas grower, these increased fees will make it difficult to keep prices competitive with other states. In Texas we can’t create rules that punish growers for doing business out of state.”

In the same manner, costs would increase for the shipping of citrus plants, such as the famous Valley grapefruit, oranges or a lime tree, Canales said.

“Texas government must not hurt small businesses with such a regulation,” he said. “These proposed fees, while not very damaging to big businesses that export large quantities of their products out of state to one customer, will have an unfair impact on small businesses that may ship one rose bush, one citrus tree, or similar small quantity of plant exports to clients out of state.”

Also in the letter to the TDA Commissioner, the state lawmakers added:

“While TDA has the authority to promote reasonable fee increases, it was never the intent of the Legislature to allow TDA to apply fees to small businesses that will be so cost-prohibitive as to force these companies to stop selling their goods out of state. Texas’ exported plant products are the best in the nation and it is the intent of the Legislature that the rest of the nation continue to buy Texas products. We must ensure that Texas government does not force businesses that are so vital to our communities to close up shop because of TDA fees.”

In addition to Canales and Schaefer, the other Texas lawmakers who signed the letter to Miller against the fee increase are:

• Rep. Rodney Anderson, R-Grande Prairie;
• Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin;
• Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake;
• Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana;
• Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler;
• Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton;
• Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls;
• Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Ft. Worth;
• Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood;
• Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola;
• Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station;
• Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands;
• Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth;
• Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso;
• Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville;
• Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving;
• Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney;
• Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano;
• Rep. Kenneth Sheets, R-Dallas;
• Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton;
• Rep. Stuart Spitzer, R-Kaufman;
• Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster;
• Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco; and
• Rep. Bill Pedler, R-Arlington.

USDA GRANT TO UTRGV NURTURES NEW SCIENTISTS TO ADDRESS FOOD CHALLENGES

A new grant to The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, announced on Wednesday, July 27, 2o16, will help train students to become the next generation of agricultural research scientists focused on future challenges in climate change and food security.

The three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) will support 30 undergraduate students in developing research and engaging in experiential learning, while working with first-rate scientists from the USDA, Texas A&M University, the Texas A&M Kingsville Citrus Center, Texas Citrus Pest and Disease Management Corporation in Weslaco and UTRGV.

The qualifying students – half from UTRGV and the rest from South Texas College, Texas State Technical College, Texas A&M University and Texas A&M University-Kingsville – will work on real-life research focused on citrus greening disease (Huanglongbing, or HLB) and on cattle fever ticks (CFT) – two ongoing threats for food security not only in the Lower Rio Grande Valley region but worldwide.

“The overall goal is to provide students with hands-on training in the management of these major agricultural threats and help them develop the critical skills needed to generate innovative solutions that will meet these and future challenges in food security and climate change in the United States,” said Dr. Teresa Patricia Feria, UTRGV associate professor of biology and the grant’s principal investigator.

It is the first time the USDA NIFA, under the Agricultural Food and Research Initiative –Food, Agriculture, Natural Resources and Human Sciences Education and Literacy grant, will fund undergraduate research fellowships, with Feria among the first group of applicants to receive it.

HLB, considered one of the most serious bacterial plant diseases in the world, is fatal for citrus trees. It is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid (ACP), a tiny insect – smaller than the head of a pin – that feeds on the trees’ leaves and stems.

Cattle fever is transmitted by cattle fever ticks and is often deadly for cattle. While cattle fever and CFTs were eradicated from the continental United States in the 1940s, there is still a permanent quarantine buffer zone between Texas and Mexico, where CFT outbreaks still occur. The buffer zone extends more than 500 miles along the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas, to the Gulf of Mexico.

“We are facing challenges in regard to changing temperature and precipitation that is affecting the abundance and the distribution of ticks, for example, and it is bringing new pathogens to plants, also,” Feria said. “This is the first time we are including this component of climate change … We have the great opportunity here at UTRGV to be a lead institution in conducting key climate change research.”

Students will get training in fieldwork, monitoring and analysis of lab samples to detect and control the pathogens responsible for HLB and CFT, which will help them gain better understanding of the plausible responses of species to climate change. They also will gain data-presenting skills through scientific writing workshops, and have the opportunity to attend local, state and national conferences.

“We are hoping to prepare them with the tools to engage in graduate studies or to join the agriculture workforce,” Feria said.

Other collaborating investigators on the grant are Dr. Adalberto Pérez de Leon, Director, USDA-ARS Knipling-Bushland U.S. Livestock Insects Research Laboratory in Kerrville; Dr. Maria Dolores Esteve-Gassent, Program Co-Director and Assistant Professor of Veterinary Pathobiology, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University, College Station; Dr. Mamoudou Setamou, Associate Professor, Texas A&M University-Kingsville Citrus Center in Weslaco; and Jon Dale, Operations Manager, Texas Citrus Pest and Disease Management Corporation (TCPDC) in Weslaco.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Hannah Moreno, a sophomore biology and music performance major at UTRGV, began working under the grant this summer at the USDA/ARS Cattle Fever Tick Research Laboratory located at the former Moore Air Force Base, where she first volunteered as a high school graduate.

Moreno is interested in research because it allows her to make a difference.

“In research, I am not only making an impact on one person, but a lot of people,” she said.

Currently, Moreno is involved in the lab’s molecular work related to a research project in Puerto Rico to determine how the CFT transmits disease agents to cattle.

She hopes to publish her research on amplifying a gene – one never amplified before – that is associated with the ability of CFT to be resistant to pesticides.

Moreno said she is learning scientific techniques and how to work with the laboratory equipment and solutions.

“This grant is allowing me to collaborate with these scientists and providing me a great foundation in the research world.”

ENGAGED LEARNING, ENHANCED SKILLS

At the TCJPD’s greenhouse in Weslaco, Roxann Lerma, a UTRGV senior biology major from Donna, is contributing to the citrus industry’s work on biocontrol techniques to fight the ACP – the insect that transmits HLB.

There, she helps raise and collect a parasitic wasp – Tamarixia radiata – a predator of ACP used to control the citrus greening without the excessive use of pesticides.

“They are hard to see,” Lerma said of the tiny wasp – even smaller than the ACP – as she collects them via a small tube from greenhouse citrus plants and places them in vials for use by area citrus growers.
Lerma also scouts for early detection of the harmful insect in Valley citrus groves and helps advise growers on the use of the wasp to help control HLB.

“This grant is enabling me to diversify my interest in different fields of research,” she said. “I started out with just basic analysis, and now I can help out with plant and animal interactions when it comes to biological control and agricultural sciences.”

For more information or to apply, contact Feria at teresa.feriaarroyo@utrgv.edu or Dr. Ruby de la Garza, USDA HSI regional director, at ruby.delagarza@osec.usda.gov.

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Gail Fagan contributed to this article. Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, represents House District 40 in Hidalgo County. HD 4o includes portions or all of Edinburg, Elsa, Faysville, La Blanca, Linn, Lópezville, McAllen, Pharr, San Carlos and Weslaco. He may be reached at his House District Office in Edinburg at (956) 383-0860 or at the Capitol at (512) 463-0426.

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