New Mexico agriculture, conservation and water groups cheered President Joe Biden’s nomination of Xochitl Torres Small to a top cabinet position as deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Jim Witte, the Secretary for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, said Torres Small’s prior work in Congress and water law expertise brings a “new dimension of leadership” at the federal agency.
“She understands the issues and is just dumping a lot of talent into the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” Witte said.
If approved by the U.S. Senate, the appointment would elevate Torres Small, who currently serves as the Under Secretary for Rural Development at the agency.
Torres Small represented the second congressional district as a Democrat in the House from 2018 to 2020.
Dr. Patrick Sullivan, the general manager of Elephant Butte Irrigation District, said having Torres Small head the agency was “great news for New Mexico,” given her experience with rural communities when she was on the House Agriculture Committee.
She lost her reelection bid for Congress in 2020. Prior to that, Torres Small worked as a water attorney in Las Cruces and as a field office aide for former Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico).
Advocates told Source NM they were optimistic Torres Small was equipped to tackle the national and local wildfire concerns, the upcoming Farm Bill and water issues crushing the Western U.S.
Paula Garcia, the executive director at the New Mexico Acequias Association, credited Torres Small with helping navigate what USDA programs could provide relief for wildfire and flooding damages from the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon disasters.
“The (USDA) Rural Development Agency has been very present and engaged in disaster recovery work in Mora and San Miguel counties,” Garicia said. “I’m super excited for her and our state, but really for all rural communities across the country, she’s demonstrated a good awareness of needs.”
Garcia, who lives in Mora, said outreach from the federal agency opened up more chances to talk about relief funding. Their work included sending staff to rural community meetings, holding listening sessions and taking tours of the damage.
“They took a lot of extra time to explain the programs,” she said. “I felt there was a lot of commitment to provide service to people and make existing programs work as best as they can.”
Mark Allison, the executive director at conservation group New Mexico Wild, said Torres Small is “truly brilliant” for the job.
“Forest fires are on New Mexicans’ minds and making sure those issues are better understood and making the U.S. Forest Service responsive to the concerns of the communities — she’s got the goods to do that job particularly well.”
Also on the table is the Farm Bill — a five-year law that governs food and agricultural programs, but also provides crop subsidies and funding for conservation programs, forestry, water and more.
Jon Hayes, executive director for the conservation nonprofit Audubon New Mexico, said the Farm Bill offers opportunities for the federal government to invest around conservation issues, especially related to water.
Hayes pointed to the fast-dropping Ogallala Aquifer, which serves eight states mostly in the High Plains states and down into eastern New Mexico, threatening the rural agriculture economy and cities dependent on groundwater.
“They’re going to be in a tough spot in coming decades,” Hayes said. “Hopefully, the Farm Bill pays for some of that.”
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