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Con: Uncertainty, financial risk abound for hopeful hemp farmers

A 40,000-square-foot warehouse in Port Lavaca sits empty. The owner, Mike Nichols, said he’s been waiting to use it as a processing facility to turn hemp crop into products such as CBD oil.

But he can’t do that yet.

Nichols, a Port Lavaca resident and Formosa contractor, said he’s been anxiously waiting for the Texas Department of Agriculture to submit its hemp plan to the governor, attorney general and the USDA so the process of licensing can begin.

“I’ll be the first one to apply for a license,” Nichols said.

Although Jim Reaves, the coordinator for intergovernmental affairs with the Texas Department of Agriculture, has received hundreds of phone calls from hopeful hemp growers, he said he’s only heard rumors of three or four potential processors, like Nichols, being developed.

Reaves said he worries about this potential marketplace imbalance.

“We’re trying to warn them that we’d hate for supply to outdo demand,” Reaves said. “We’re telling them to make sure they have someone to process it.”

Justin Benavidez, an agricultural economist with Amarillo’s AgriLife Extension office, said he recommends potential hemp farmers line up a processor ahead of time and obtain an attorney-reviewed contract.

According to an economic assessment included in the USDA’s hemp production rules released Oct. 28, the per-acre returns from hemp farming for individual growers nationwide could vary anywhere between a gain of about $6,000 and a loss of about $17,000.

What’s more, seed uniformity hasn’t yet been worked out.

Josh McGinty, an AgriLife crops expert, said growing hemp in Texas is risky because if THC levels spike about .3% in a farmer’s crop, which will be subject to testing, they’ll have to throw out the entire crop.

Reaves said the TDA is working out a plan for per-acre deviations in THC levels.

Even if Nichols does get a license to process hemp in time for the growing season in March, he said he’ll wait to see what the farmers grow before he invests in processing technology.

“There’s a lot of risk,” Nichols said.

Pro: Hemp farming is an exciting, new agricultural industry

Jim Reaves knows, perhaps better than anyone, about the buzz surrounding the legalization of hemp farming in Texas.

Reaves is the Texas Department of Agriculture’s coordinator for intergovernmental affairs, emergency management and business continuity, so much of the interest in hemp farming has been directed his way.

“I’ve had at least 600 emails to our hemp email address and probably 600 to 700 phone calls,” Reaves said.

Mike Nichols, of Port Lavaca, is interested in becoming a hemp processor, or a person in charge of turning the crop into usable materials like textiles and CBD oil.

He said he’s learned through research and interviews with processors in states like Oregon, where hemp farming and processing has been legal since 2015, about the potential profitability.

“This product can make about three times more than cotton or soybean or any other product they’re selling,” Nichols said.

At the Rodale Institute, a Pennsylvania-based organic farming nonprofit, researchers have studied the crop’s potential to suppress weeds and add diversity to crop rotations.

In Pennsylvania, hemp production became legal for research purposes in 2014. Preliminary results of a four-year Rodale Institute study that began in 2017 found that hemp grows quickly and performs as well as or better than other cover crops.

“As a cover crop, hemp enhances soil health by shading out weeds – reducing the need for synthetic herbicides – and adding diversity to crop rotations, improving soil health,” according to the nonprofit’s website. “Hemp is also versatile in the market, with thousands of uses for its seed, oil and fiber. It is stronger and more durable than cotton, yet requires less space and less water to grow.”

Advocate staff photo 

Arabella Alvarado, 17 months, of Victoria, is the daughter of Theresa Garcia and Brian Alvarado. For Christmas, she said she would be happy with anything Santa brings her.

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City sets public discussion about new franchise agreement for internet service

Every day last week, Dr. John McNeill’s office struggled to operate without most or all of its phone and fax service.

The office has its service with Suddenlink, which has been under fire recently throughout the city as residents seem to increasingly express complaints about the service provider.

“Suddenlink may have their reasons, but it has put us, and our patients, in a bind,” McNeill said Friday. “It takes it to another level when considering a patient’s availability to their health care.”

Bobby Solansky, who does IT work for McNeill’s office and owns Bobby’s Computer Repair, said Friday that Nov. 25 he called Suddenlink four or five times a day to get help. He said he first called about the phone issues Nov. 23 but was told no one could help over the weekend.

“When Monday came around, I called first thing and was told someone would be working on it,” he said. “But by the end of the week, after calling consistently every day and being told different timelines of when things would be resolved, the problem hadn’t been addressed.”

In fact, the phone service only got worse as the week went on, said McNeill’s billing manager, Candida Tudor. She said the office normally has six phone lines and one fax line, and early in the week they were operating with just one phone line. By Friday, she said, all of the lines were down.

Tudor said it was a “serious problem” that Suddenlink wasn’t addressing the issues quickly because the office uses the phone and fax for significant operations, including communicating with patients and faxing prescriptions.

“I asked if they could please expedite the help because we were talking about a medical office and needed this figured out, and nothing,” she said. “There was no help, and it’s only gotten worse.”

After the ongoing complaints from residents, mainly regarding Suddenlink’s internet service and customer service issues, Victoria’s City Council approved a resolution that expresses the city’s dissatisfaction with Suddenlink. The city planned to send the resolution to State Rep. Geanie Morrison and State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst as well as the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

Though the city’s attorney, Thomas Gwosdz, has said Suddenlink does not have a monopoly over services in the area, others have disagreed. Regardless, the city may enter into a new franchise agreement with Victoria Electric Cooperative that would grant the company authority to provide broadband services throughout the city. Victoria City Council will discuss the agreement and conduct a public hearing on the matter Tuesday.

McNeill said he is glad to hear about the possible agreement.

“Any time there’s only one main provider, it sets up the possibility of poor service,” he said. “Our nation is built on competition. When there is no competition, there’s no incentive to do well.”

Gwosdz explained in the council’s meeting packet that Victoria Electric Cooperative currently has a franchise agreement to provide electricity in some parts of the city. The company is expanding its business to add internet service, he wrote, and to provide the services, it intends to run new fiber optic cables in city rights of way.

The ordinance would grant VEC the right to run its fiber optic cables in city rights of way for 10 years. The ordinance would require VEC to comply with city ordinances and regulations regarding placement, location and maintenance of its facilities and would require VEC to relocate its facilities at its expense if the city needs to expand or reclaim parts of its rights of way.

In exchange for the right to use public rights of way, VEC would pay the city compensation equal to the amount that the Public Utility Commission would require the company to pay if it were a certificated telecommunications provider, Gwosdz wrote.

VEC would pay a franchise fee based on the number and type of connections provided in the city. VEC would initially pay the city 86 cents per month for each residential connection, and $2.90 per month for each commercial connection. Based on VEC’s projections, Gwosdz wrote, the annual franchise fee is estimated to initially total between $6,500 and $22,000.

McNeill said he is glad the council is discussing the agreement and conducting the public hearing.

“Very simply, we are the consumer,” he said. “(Suddenlink) is supposed to work for us, and that’s not happening. It’s good people are talking about this because we need to consider other options.”

Solansky agreed.

“All I know is competition brings accountability, and right now, there are not enough options for people to go to,” he said. “Another option for high speed internet would definitely be a step in the right direction.”

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Pro/con: Should Texas farmers plant hemp in its first legal growing season?

Since the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill almost a year ago, hopeful hemp farmers have felt they were watching grass grow as the U.S. Department of Agriculture waited to approve the necessary plans and rules for the licensing process to begin.

In Texas, there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel.

Should Texas farmers plant hemp in its first legal growing season?

After the USDA released its rules for a hemp production program on Oct. 28, the Texas Department of Agriculture began working on its own plan for the state program.

Jim Reaves, the TDA’s coordinator for intergovernmental affairs, said he expects that as early as this week the TDA will deliver its hemp production plan to the governor, attorney general and USDA for approval.

He said the department is anxious to get the rules passed.

“We’ve been sitting on our hands waiting for the USDA to get their rules handed down,” Reaves said.

After the state rules are defined comes a 30-day period of comment. Then, farmers can begin to apply for licenses, a process that can take up to 60 days to be approved.

If all goes as planned, this means growers will be licensed to put hemp seed in the ground in time for the spring season. Experts estimate the window to plant hemp in Texas will be between March and April.

As conditions align for being able to plant hemp in the first place, people are now wondering if they should take the risky leap to become the state’s first hemp planters.

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Public Safety
House burns on Garrett Road near Fordtran

Flames poured from the windows of a single-story house near Fordtran as it burned Sunday night.

The fire began about 5 p.m., and by the time it was extinguished about 7 p.m., the house at 2224 Garrett Road appeared to be a total loss.

The DeWitt County Appraisal District lists two properties at the address, which are owned by the estate of Ed and Margaret Kocurek. The properties have a combined value of $726,000.

Neighbors at the scene said the home was owned by two women. They said the house was vacant and had been for several months.

A firefighter with the Fordtran Volunteer Fire Department said firefighters responded to another fire that occurred at the home about two weeks ago.

Among the agencies that responded to the fire Sunday night were the Fordtran Volunteer Fire Department, the Nursery Volunteer Fire Department, the Cuero Fire Department, the Yoakum Fire Department, the city of Victoria Fire Department and the Victoria County Fire Department.

According to firefighters at the scene, the DeWitt County Sheriff’s Office is leading an investigation into the cause of the fire.

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Community comes together for Hallettsville Festival of Lights

HALLETTSVILLE – Families packed the downtown square for a day full of Christmas cheer Saturday for the annual Hallettsville Festival of Lights.

Since 1996, the festival of lights has brought Hallettsville and the surrounding communities together for a day of fun leading up to the unveiling of the Lavaca County Courthouse illuminated with Christmas lights, Santa’s kiddie parade and a lighted Christmas parade.

Kendall Warner | kwarner@vicad.com 

Kids watch and wave at float riders during the Hallettsville Festival of Lights Parade on Saturday.

Along with the parade, there was an ornament contest, in which the winners were able to ride on a firetruck in the parade, and photos with Santa and Mrs. Claus inside the courthouse.

JoAnn Shimek grew up in Hallettsville and has worked for the Chamber of Commerce for three years helping to organize the festival.

The Chamber of Commerce works to organize the vendors for the festival, which Shimek says brings a boost for the local Hallettsville businesses.

“I think it brings our community together because everybody loves Christmas and seeing the courthouse illuminated with lights,” Shimek said. “It brings back those who have moved away, and it brings tourism to the town.”